January 18, 1996

Clinton Ratings Hold: Balanced Budget A Public Priority, But Few See Personal Payoff

Other Important Findings

The President has a strong lead over Senator Dole among Independent voters (53% vs. 38%). Perhaps most surprisingly, 18% of Republicans say they would be inclined to vote for Clinton over Dole. The defection rate among Democrats, whose party has decided on a candidate, was less than 10%.

Clinton also is making a good showing against Dole among the very youngest voters and among seniors. He out-polls Dole among coveted middle income voters. The widely reported gender gap is also still apparent. Clinton leads Dole among women by a 55% to 37% margin, but by a narrower 49% to 46% among men.

Dole’s current favorability ratings are another indication of the softness of his support. His ratings have remained flat in spite of his front runner status and his prominent leadership in the budget battles in Washington. Less than 10% of the public now holds a “very favorable” opinion of the Senate Majority Leader; 44% have a “mostly favorable” view. Dole’s overall favorability rating is higher among Republicans (78%), but only 11% of these party loyalists characterize their view of Dole as “very favorable.” In comparison, Clinton’s support within his Democratic base is significantly higher — 85% have a favorable opinion of him, 25% said “very favorable.”

Forbes Known By Six-in-Ten

Dole’s closest GOP competitor in New Hampshire and Iowa, Steve Forbes, is becoming known nationally, but evokes a mixed reaction. As much as 61% of the public know enough about Forbes to have an opinion of him. Half view the millionaire publisher favorably, and half unfavorably. Forbes is known to roughly two-thirds of Republicans; most (65%) have a favorable view of him, but few feel very strongly about this (only 10% said “very favorable”).

While many Americans (48%) think that charges of possible misconduct leveled against Hillary Clinton are politically based, the first lady’s public image has nonetheless suffered. Currently, unfavorable opinions outweigh favorable views of Mrs. Clinton by a margin of 54% to 42%. Prior to this survey, her public image had been on an upswing. As recently as a few months ago, a Center survey had found her favorable rating improving to 58% (with 38% unfavorable). In both the current survey and the earlier one, the First Lady’s ratings were much more positive among women than among men.

Clinton Foreign Policy Rating Spikes

The public is split on Clinton’s decision to commit 20,000 U.S. troops to Bosnia, with 48% approving and 49% disapproving. Paradoxically, despite this close division of opinion about the President’s specific action on Bosnia, the public is more pleased with his overall foreign policy than previously. Clinton’s approval rating for overall “handling of foreign policy” rose markedly from 39% last June to 52% now.

This increase may reflect a positive reaction to Clinton’s decisiveness rather than his decision. Somewhat the same effect was found when Clinton sent U.S. troops to Haiti a year and a half ago. The public’s initial reaction to that deployment was even more negative: 41% approval, 52% disapproval (The New York Times poll, September 1994.) And Clinton’s overall foreign policy rating also spurted soon after the Haiti decision, to 50%.

At this time, opinion of the President is also being helped by a mostly favorable view of the way the Bosnian operation is proceeding. A majority of the public (52%) believe that “peace will hold” in Bosnia, while 38% think that U.S. forces will be drawn into a major shooting war there.

The responses to both the Haiti and Bosnian deployment stand in lukewarm contrast to the public’s reaction to every other foreign venture by U.S. troops since World War II, ranging from 65% approval in Korea in 1950 to 75% for the Persian Gulf conflict in 1990 and 74% for Somalia in 1992. Similarly, public interest in the troop deployment to the Balkans was relatively low, as it was for Haiti. Only 37% of Pew Center respondents said they followed the story in Bosnia “very closely,” compared to 38% for Haiti in October 1994, 52% for Somalia and 63% for the initial deployment to the Persian Gulf.

The public’s poor knowledge about the Bosnian deployment was another sign of the low level of interest. Although 65% of Americans said they saw news reports of Clinton’s trip to Bosnia, barely one-in-five respondents (21%) correctly knew that the United States will contribute less than half of the NATO peacekeepers to the area (20,000 of the 60,000 total). Fully 31% said the U.S. contingent will make up “most,” another 29% said “about half” of the NATO force.

Blizzard News Tops Bosnia and Shutdown

Other news attracted more Americans than the Balkans in January, however. The blizzard on the East Coast was followed very closely by 48%, for example, and the shutdown of the Federal government by 42%, both significantly higher than the Bosnian deployment at 37%. At the bottom of news interest, merely 3% followed closely the marital problems between Britain’s Prince Charles and his estranged wife, Princess Diana.

In between, the Washington debate about the federal budget was followed very closely by 32%. This was a much higher level of interest than Washington stories normally enjoy, presumably due to its close association with the government shutdown. The debate about the future of the Medicare system attracted 30% by this measure, which was much the same as the interest found last September. The public’s level of understanding on some domestic issues was impressive. Fully 57% of respondents answered correctly that Republican leaders in Congress have proposed the bigger cuts in the rate of growth of Medicare, while 18% said Clinton. Similarly, 46% answered correctly that GOP leaders have proposed the bigger tax cut, while 15% said Clinton.

News Media Better Regarded

The public’s regard for network television news jumped significantly in January. Fully 83% said they had a favorable opinion of the national TV media (25% “very favorable,” 58% “mostly favorable”). In comparison, the networks received a 67% favorability rating in June 1995 and 69% in July 1994. Local television news was judged favorably by 84% (28% “very favorable”) in January.

Two stories that lent themselves well to picture-oriented television, U.S. troops in the field in Bosnia and snow on the ground along the heavily populated East Coast, may explain the rating rise. Increased regard for television was particularly strong in the East, for example. However, it was also pronounced among college graduates and those in the top income bracket ($75,000 or more annually). Newspapers enjoyed a marginal improvement in this respect: 79% favorable, vs. 74% in June 1995. Gains for the print media were highest among non-whites, as well as college graduates and top income earners.

The U.S. court system dropped somewhat in the public’s eyes over the past two years. A total of 35% now have a very or mostly favorable view of the judicial system, compared to 43% in January, 1994. The sensational O.J. Simpson murder trial may have been responsible in some part for the decline.

In other measures of attitudes toward the press:

Asked which type of media was doing the best job of covering the news lately, 50% of respondents said network television news, another 20% said local television news, 14% said newspapers, 8% said radio and 4% said news magazines.

Asked from which media they were getting most of their national and international news (two answers accepted), 88% said television, 61% said newspapers, 25% said radio, 8% said magazines.

One-in-ten reported at least sometimes going on-line to get news about current events, public issues or politics.