Every so often, someone asks a poll question that cuts through the sound and fury and signifies the "nothing."
Here in Michigan, where on Aug. 5 Republican primary voters will elect precinct delegates in the first official electoral test of the 1988 Republican presidential campaign, the pollsters have been out in force this summer asking all manner of questions about the 1988 race.
The responses, particularly in one poll, have been revealing. When 400 likely Republican primary voters were asked two weeks ago by WDIV-TV, the NBC affiliate in Detroit, if they knew whether the candidates running for delegate in their precinct were associated with a presidential candidate, 95.5 percent said "no."
"And the rest," said Remer Tyson, political writer for the Detroit Free Press, "lied."
All together, Vice President Bush, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and television evangelist Marion G. (Pat) Robertson have spent some 30 campaign days and more than $1 million, and have generated lavish media attention here in the past 10 months trying to influence the election of these precinct delegates. Control of this group, the candidates figure, will eventually mean control of Michigan's delegates to the 1988 GOP national convention.
But the unspoiled ignorance of the electorate stands as a testament to just how thoroughly Michigan's early-bird GOP presidential delegate-selection game has been designed as an insiders' affair.
But it signifies something else, too. This ignorance is the single most important political fact of life the three camps must deal with between now and Aug 5. And they're doing it quite differently.
If Kemp and Robertson have their way, nothing will happen between now and primary day to lift the veil of darkness. In this mission, they'll get a nice boost from the ballot itself, which will not list delegate candidates by presidential preference.
Only Bush is trying to let voters in on the $1 million secret of who is supporting whom. And his operatives delight in drawing the contrast.
"There's been a concerted effort of obfuscation," L. Brooks Patterson, Oakland County prosecutor and one of four cochairs of Bush's state organization, said of the strategies of Kemp and Robertson. "They know they can't get elected if they tell people who their delegates are, so they're playing it real cutesy."
Last week, the Michigan Opportunity Society, the front group here for the unannounced Kemp presidential bid, sent out its only mass mailing of the campaign. The piece went to some 400,000 likely Republican voters. It was targeted by precinct, and each recipient was told the name of the delegate in that precinct to vote for.
One tiny omission, though: Nowhere on the flier did Kemp's name or picture appear. Instead, the flier pictured President Reagan and urged that "President Reagan Needs You to Keep the Cause Alive!" by electing so-and-so precinct delegate.
The flier drew cries of foul from the Bush camp and a mild rebuke from the White House political staff. W. Clark Durant III, head of the MOS, said it is a "great piece." Political consultant Charles Black, an informal adviser to Kemp, said he assumes that Kemp's name was left out because of concerns over federal election laws, but added that there was a strategic benefit as well: "Reagan is a hell of a lot better sell than Kemp."
The disinclination of the MOS to advertise its main product -- Kemp -- is probably not unrelated to another part of the WDIV poll. When the Republicans were asked to name their presidential preference, 35.3 percent did not have one, 31.5 percent were for Bush, 9.3 percent were for Senate Majority leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), 6.5 percent were for Robertson, 5.3 percent were for former senator Howard H. Baker (R-Tenn.) and 3.8 percent were for Kemp.
The showing can be small comfort to Kemp, who has campaigned more extensively here than in any state outside of New York and who allowed Durant to raise the stakes of the Michigan contest last fall by announcing with considerable flourish that 7 of the 18 Republican congressional district chairs supported Kemp for president.
That triggered a mad scramble among Kemp, Bush and -- eventually -- Robertson to recruit candidates to run for delegate on Aug. 5; these are the same delegates who, in early 1988, will select countywide delegates, who will select state delegates, who will choose Michigan's 77 national convention delegates.
Although the precise figures are disputed, it is generally acknowledged that the Kemp forces came in a distant third in the delegate-recruiting phase -- with Bush and Robertson recruiting roughly 4,000 delegates apiece and Kemp probably fewer than 2,000.
Already the second-guessing over Kemp's performance has begun -- and it is only the summer of 1986, and the congressman is only an asterisk on the list of candidates. The Michigan Conservative Union, a small but influential political group that gave Kemp 78 percent of the vote in its April leadership poll, carried a stinging attack on the Kemp operation in its June newsletter. It faulted the candidate for focusing on economic rather than social issues and accused the state organization under Durant of "dropping the ball" on organizing.
Kemp, campaigning in the state this weekend for the 12th time in the past year, said he was untroubled by the critics. He said it is "too early" to go through the machinations of choosing delegates and that the Michigan process seems as if it were designed by Rube Goldberg. He said he is glad the MOS did not use his name in appealing to voters because to do so might create problems with the Federal Elections Commission -- a concern, he said, that did not apply when his name was liberally used on MOS material to recruit delegates.
The MOS and Kemp do have a special legal concern. The MOS is not a federal political action committee, and Kemp for the moment is a candidate for Congress, not for president.
The Bush and Robertson efforts are being funded now by presidential exploratory committees -- meaning money they spend will be counted against 1988 campaign limits -- and so they no longer need to play the double game of pretending they are involved in party-building and not presidential politicking.
But even without legal worries, the Robertson organization has also decided to play down Robertson's likely candidacy. State Freedom Council head Marlene Elwell said the delegate candidates they recruited have been instructed, when they knock on doors, to talk about traditional values, judges and school board members -- not about Pat Robertson.
Here again, some poll data may be instructive. A Detroit News survey of 800 Michigan voters -- Democratic and Republican -- showed that 57 percent disapprove of the idea of Robertson running for president and 74 percent said they are unlikely to vote for him.
The poll also asked about the value of political endorsements from 10 individuals or institutions. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce led the list with a plus-24 rating. Michigan Right to Life received a plus-four. The AFL-CIO got a minus-two. And Robertson was last at minus-21.
The people taking the greatest comfort from these surveys are the operatives at the Fund for America's Future, Bush's PAC. Having been surprised and upstaged in the spring by Robertson's strong showing in the recruitment drive, they are pulling out all the stops to recoup.
They have already done one targeted mailing to likely Republican voters from the vice president, and a second from state and local party leaders is expected next week. They are recruiting write-in candidates to run in about 1,000 precincts. And although Bush is in the Middle East, his recorded voice has been calling GOP activists for weeks, thanking them for their interest.