November 15, 1996

Campaign ’96 Gets Lower Grades from Voters

Other Important Findings and Analyses

But An Informed Decision

The usefulness of the debates aside, voters did feel they were sufficiently informed to choose between candidates. Fully 75% of voters felt they had learned enough about the candidates to make “an informed choice” between Clinton, Dole and Perot, a level similar to that in 1992 (77%) and substantially higher than in 1988 (59%).

Also on a positive note, many fewer voters (49%) complained of increased mudslinging in this campaign than four years ago (68%). Clinton supporters were more likely than Dole voters to say they saw an increase in mudslinging in 1996, presumably because of the intense attacks on Clinton’s character during the last week of the campaign. Judgments about the extent of negative campaigning varied with the news media upon which voters relied for campaign information. More than half of those who relied primarily on television news thought this election was more negative than previous contests, compared to about a third of those who relied on newspapers rather than TV (34%).

TV News Slips

Voters were less likely to get their news from television this year than they were in 1992 (72% vs. 82%). Television news remains the leading source of campaign information, but the number of voters saying they got most of their news from the networks decreased by 19% points since the last Presidential election. The greatest fall off in network news consumption was among voters under 30 years of age. Radio use, on the other hand, increased (19% vs. 12% in 1992). Republicans were more likely than Democrats or Independents to report tuning in to radio for campaign news. Fully 10% of voters said they went on-line for news about the campaign. Men went on-line for this purpose much more than women (14% vs. 5%), and young voters more than seniors (16% under 30 vs. 1% over 65).

Commercial Failures

Although news viewership was down, voters picked news reports nearly five times more often than commercials as the better way to get information on the candidates’ issue positions (77% vs. 16% for commercials). A somewhat smaller majority (67%) also selected news reports as the better source for information about what the candidates were like personally. Preference for news reports over advertisements was greater in this campaign than in both 1992 and 1988.

This year, in general, fewer voters (25%) found the candidates’ ads helpful than in 1992 (38%). Dole voters were the least satisfied with the information provided in the ads. In particular, fewer Dole supporters than Clinton backers saw ads as useful (20% vs. 31%).

Even though press fairness became a campaign theme for Dole, the public judged the media’s treatment of the major party candidates much the same as in 1992. Almost three out of four voters (73%) thought the press was fair to the President. A smaller majority (65%) felt the media was fair to Dole. These percentages mirror the public’s view of press coverage of Clinton and Bush four years ago. Also now as then, far fewer Republicans than Democrats said the media was fair to the GOP candidate (47% vs. 79%). Members of both parties, along with Independents, thought Ross Perot was handled less fairly this year: 46% of all voters thought the media was fair to Perot vs. 67% four years ago.

Much as in 1992, voters split on whether news organizations had too much influence on the national elections (47 % said too much, 46% said about right, and 4% said too little). Men were more likely than women to see excessive media influence (51% vs. 42%), and Republicans more than Democrats (63% vs. 31%).

Work Together

Reaffirming the results of their voting, the public endorses bipartisan government. Nearly three-out-of-four voters (72%) said Democratic leaders in Washington should try to work with Republican leaders to accomplish things, rather than stand up for traditional Democratic constituencies. As many as 63% of Democrats expressed this sentiment as did 73% of Independents.

In contrast to 1994, voters pulled back from saying Republican Congressional leaders should set the agenda in Washington. When asked who should take the lead in solving the nation’s problems, a plurality chose President Clinton over Republican Congressional leaders (45% vs. 30%). Just two years ago, in the wake of the Republicans’ dramatic takeover of both Houses of Congress, the public chose GOP leaders over Clinton by a narrow margin (43% vs. 39%). Nearly one-in-five respondents volunteered that both Clinton and GOP leaders should take the lead, i.e. that agenda-setting should be shared; only one-in- ten volunteered this response in December of 1994. White Evangelical Protestants were the only major demographic group in which a plurality said the GOP Congressional leaders should set the agenda in Washington.

Little Strategic Voting

Although most voters expressed pleasure with the divided government resulting from the election, there is little evidence in this survey of strategic voting. More than half (53%) of those who voted for the Republican candidate for Congress from their district said their choice was mostly a vote for him or her personally. Some 21% said their vote was for the Republican Party, and 22% said their vote was intended as a check on the President’s power. But a mere 8% of those who voted both for Clinton and for a Republican in Congress said their vote was aimed at checking Clinton’s power as President. For the most part these ticket- splitters chose the GOP candidate from their district on the basis of his or her personal appeal.

Voters expressed some optimism about the future, believing the country is more likely to make progress than lose ground on a host of issues over the next four years. Reflecting several of the Clinton campaign’s central themes, strong pluralities of voters said the country will likely move forward in a second Clinton term on the quality of public education, the budget deficit, and protecting the Medicare system. They were least optimistic about the problems of drug abuse, crime and families staying together. A majority of voters anticipate no change on two examined issues — the tax system and the campaign finance system. Democrats expressed a higher level of optimism than Republicans and Independents on every one of the eleven issues examined in this survey.

The Clinton Coalition

Clinton won reelection by capturing strong majorities of traditional Democratic constituencies and winning over important swing groups. Minorities, low income voters, city dwellers, and those with the lowest educational levels voted overwhelmingly for Clinton. In addition, women and senior citizens chose Clinton over Dole by substantial margins. The key swing groups supporting Clinton were suburbanites (47% vs. 39% for Dole), white Catholics (46% vs. 36%), and Independents (38% vs. 31%). Dole found his strongest support among white men, high income voters, and white Evangelical Protestants.

Clinton’s support was much more positive than was Dole’s. Of the 45% who voted for Clinton, 31% said they voted more for the President than against his opponents. Dole voters, on the other hand, were more likely to say their choice was a vote against Clinton and Perot rather than a vote for the former Senator (20% anti-others vs. 17% pro-Dole).

Clinton did receive some protest votes, most often from those who were potential Dole voters — Independents, Republicans, and split-ticket voters (i.e., voters who chose Clinton for President but voted for a Republican for Congress). Not surprisingly, those who said their support of Clinton was mainly a vote against his opponents were more likely than other Clinton backers to express dissatisfaction with the slate of presidential candidates. This is even truer among Dole “anti-supporters” — an astounding 83% said they were dissatisfied with the choice of candidates in this year’s election.

Dole Voters More Negative

Dole enjoyed much less positive support than Bush in 1992. Among Bush voters, 66% said their vote was for the former President rather against Clinton and Perot, compared to 44% for Dole this year. Less than a third of Bush voters cast their vote against his opponents, compared to more than half of Dole’s supporters this year. Among Dole supporters, Independents, Southerners and those with high incomes were the most likely to say their choice was a vote against Dole’s opponents.

Clinton’s supporters voted more for the person than his party. Nearly four-in-ten (39%) said their choice was more a vote for Clinton personally while 26% said it was more for the Democratic Party. Asked what they liked most about him, those who voted for Clinton most often cited his stand on the issues (18%) and his leadership ability (12%). Only 5% mentioned his personality and character and 2% cited his experience. A similar pattern was seen in the Clinton vote in 1992, but since then, he has gained points on leadership and lost some ground on the issues.

Dole’s supporters were more evenly divided between personality and party. Some 24% said their choice was a vote for Dole personally, 19% said they were voting more for the Republican Party.

Those voters who chose Clinton for negative reasons were evenly split between those who opposed Dole personally (13%) and those opposed to the Republican Party (14%). Dole’s negative supporters, on the other hand, were much more anti-Clinton than anti-Democratic Party. Nearly four-in-ten Dole voters (38%) said they voted more against Clinton personally; only 11% said they were voting against the Democratic Party

Early Decisions

Voters appear to have made up their minds early in the election cycle. Four-in-ten said they definitely decided to vote for their candidate sometime before 1996. Another 13% made up their minds during the primaries, early in 1996. Some 17% said they decided sometime during the week before the election, and 6% of these were not certain until election day.

Clinton voters made their decision earlier than Dole voters — not surprising given the fact that the President faced no opposition from within his own party. Half of all Clinton supporters said they decided for the President before 1996.

Dole voters decided later in the cycle. Some 37% said they decided before 1996. The Republican convention was an important turning point for some Dole voters; 14% said they made up their minds during or after the convention. Only 1% of Clinton voters said they made up their minds around the time of the Democratic convention. As many as 15% of Dole’s supporters decided to vote for him in the week preceding the election.

The presidential debates had very little direct influence on voters’ decisions this year compared to 1992. Only 3% of all voters said they made up their minds definitely to vote for their chosen candidate during or just after the debates, down from 12% in the last presidential election.

Clinton Probes?

The public is divided over the issue of whether Congress has gone too far in investigating ethical charges against the Clinton administration, but a narrow majority feels a special Congressional committee should be set up to examine charges of improper campaign contributions to the Democrats.

Nearly equal percentages said Congress has gone too far (30%) and not far enough (31%) in its ethics investigations, while 35% said it has handled the matter about right. Predictably, most Republicans (52%) believe Congress has not gone far enough and most Democrats (52%) said too far. A plurality of Independents (38%) said Congress has handled the situation about right.

White Protestant Evangelicals and white men were among the most likely groups to indicate that more investigations were warranted. Minorities and urban dwellers believed most strongly that the Congressional investigations had gone too far.

On the other hand, 54% of voters said a special Congressional committee should be set to investigate charges of improper campaign contributions to the Democratic Party. The gender gap that favored the Democrats in the campaign disappeared on this issue; nearly equal percentages of men and women (56% and 53%, respectively) supported the creation of a special Congressional committee to investigate questionable DNC fund-raising.

Cite this publication: “Campaign ’96 Gets Lower Grades from Voters.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (November 15, 1996) http://www.people-press.org/1996/11/15/campaign-96-gets-lower-grades-from-voters/, accessed on July 22, 2014.