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  • By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, December 17, 1998; Page A41

    Most Americans now expect that the House of Representatives will vote to impeach President Clinton even though a majority of the public prefers that Clinton be censured and not forced to face an impeachment trial in the Senate, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, released yesterday.

    Two out of three Americans now believe the House will vote to impeach Clinton. But six in 10 also expect that Clinton would prevail in the Senate and not be removed from office, according to the Post-ABC News poll.

    A total of 759 randomly selected adults were interviewed Tuesday night for this national poll. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

    The survey and a flurry of other polls released in the past two days suggest that many Americans would prefer that Clinton resign rather than put the country through a protracted battle in the Senate, though the proportion who favor resignation if he is impeached varies from less than half to a clear majority, depending how the question is worded.

    In the Post-ABC News poll, more than half of those interviewed -- 57 percent -- said they would prefer that Clinton leave office rather than "fight charges in the Senate." When those who favor resignation were asked why they thought Clinton should leave voluntarily, 59 percent said he should quit because it was "the quickest way of bringing this matter to an end," while 38 percent said the president should resign specifically because of "what he did in the Lewinsky matter."

    But public opinion on resignation remains highly volatile; even small variations in question wording produced big differences in results. In a separate poll conducted Tuesday night by The Post, a random sample of 600 adults were asked if Clinton should resign, or whether he should "remain in office and face trial in the Senate." When asked this version of the question, fewer than half -- 43 percent -- said Clinton should quit. Again, most of those favoring resignation do so mainly because they want the scandal to end and not because of Clinton's behavior.

    Other major survey organizations have been conducting tests on their versions of questions that attempt to gauge what the public wants Clinton to do if he is impeached, sometimes with similarly large and puzzling swings.

    CBS News and the New York Times this week asked 750 respondents this question: "If the full House votes to send impeachment articles to the Senate for a trial, then do you think it would be better for the country if Bill Clinton resigned from office, or not?" Forty-three percent said Clinton should resign, while 53 percent said he should not.

    But the Times asked a shorter version of the question to a random subsample of 169 respondents Tuesday night: "If the full House votes to impeach Bill Clinton, then do you think it would be better for the country if Bill Clinton resigned from office, or not?" This time, 60 percent said Clinton should resign, a 17-point shift in support for resignation.

    The differences revealed in both the Times-CBS and the Post-ABC wording tests are surprisingly large and puzzling, said Michael Kagay, editor of news surveys for the New York Times.

    "It's a fascinating example of what we say in the method box that runs with every poll story: Variations in question wording can sometimes make for differences in results," Kagay said. "Statistical sampling is an example of the science of polling. The wording of questions remains a craft."

    Recent Post-ABC News polls suggest that Clinton has been able to ride out the Monica Lewinsky scandal on the basis of his strong job approval ratings and the public's belief that his behavior does not warrant impeachment.

    But the new Post-ABC News poll suggests that most Americans feel little personal affection for their president: 56 percent said they have an unfavorable view of Clinton "as a person." Only one in four said they would be "angry" if Clinton were impeached and removed from office.

    About half -- 54 percent -- said that "whatever happens to Clinton, it's his own fault." Forty-six percent agreed that "Clinton slipped up, but his critics are taking unfair advantage of it." These results suggest that most Americans may not be swayed by emotional appeals from Clinton for support.

    Assistant director of polling Claudia Deane contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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