April 11, 1997

Americans Unmoved by Washington’s Big Stories

77% Fear Nuclear, Biological Terrorism

Introduction and Summary

Top news stories from Washington are not connecting with the American people, according to the latest News Interest Index poll. A summit meeting, the growing campaign finance controversy and the legislative impasse on Capitol Hill have so far failed to stir the public.

Just 6% of Americans followed very closely news about the Helsinki summit. The percentage of adults paying attention to the steady drumbeat of news about the Democratic campaign finance scandal is somewhat higher than earlier in the year, but Bill Clinton’s and Al Gore’s ratings show only modest declines. Fewer people are aware of events in Congress this year than in April 1995, but there is no more alarm than usual about the lack of progress there. The poll also found little indication that the campaign finance scandal has caused any backlash against Asian Americans or Asian immigrants, who continue to be far better regarded than newcomers from Latin American countries.

Despite the lack of attention to foreign affairs, Madeleine Albright has become the star of the Administration. The Secretary of State’s latest favorability ratings top those of the President and the Vice President.

General indifference to matters of governance and politics in Washington recently is underscored by the relatively greater amount of attention being paid to such matters as the Heaven’s Gate suicides, talk of distillers beginning television advertising, and the Supreme Court challenge to the Internet censorship laws. With regard to the censorship case, the public expresses near universal support (83%) for the federal law that makes it illegal to send obscene or indecent material to children via the Internet. Comparable percentages approve of the federally required v-chip in new TV sets and tougher law enforcement efforts to prevent children from purchasing cigarettes, even though nearly 70% of Americans think the federal government controls too much of their daily lives.

These are the findings of the latest Pew Research Center nationwide survey of 1,206 respondents which found the President s approval ratings slipping somewhat, as a somewhat larger proportion of the public was attentive to the Democratic National Committee campaign finance scandal than a month ago. Clinton’s performance rating slipped from 60% in late February to 55% in the current poll. The percentage paying at least fairly close attention to the DNC fundraising controversy rose from 45% to 56% over that same period.

Gore’s favorable rating fell more sharply, from 65% to 57%, but there are no signs that the scandal has radically redefined the Vice President’s personal image. Volunteered one-word descriptions of Gore suggest that the public continues to see him in positive terms. The most commonly used words to describe Gore were intelligent, boring and okay, followed by good and quiet. No adjectives relating Gore to the campaign finance scandal made the public’s top 30 list. As was the case in September 1996, favorable descriptions of the Vice President overwhelmingly outweigh unfavorable ones.

Clinton’s job approval ratings have fallen off significantly among middle income Americans and political Independents. Gore’s favorable ratings have dropped most among middle aged and middle income Americans. Democrats have not wavered in their support for Gore, but he has lost favor with Republicans and Independents.

Fully two-thirds (65%) of the public rate Secretary of State Albright favorably, vs. only 14% unfavorable. She receives high marks from men and women alike, and Republicans rate her almost as favorably as Democrats. Among Americans who follow news about foreign affairs, 78% gave her a favorable rating. The Secretary is better known now than in January, just after her historic confirmation as the first female Secretary of State. Increased awareness of Albright is most apparent among lower socio-economic groups.