February 25, 1999

Public Votes for Continuity and Change in 2000

Other Important Findings and Analyses

Spike in National Mood

The public’s sense of how well the country is doing has finally caught up with Americans’ positive ratings of their own lives. In fact, the national mood is better today than at any time since the 1960s, and the public is even more optimistic about the future. Nearly one-in-three Americans give the country high ratings today, reflecting a substantial jump from just 10% in 1996 and 20% a year ago. One-third of Americans (36%) say the outlook for the next five years is just as strong.

The upswing in the national mood has diminished the traditional “optimism gap” — the tendency for Americans to rate their own lives substantially better than they rate the country. Indeed, while personal satisfaction remains high — 43% place themselves on the top three steps of an eleven-step rating ladder — the gap between the personal and national ratings is substantially smaller than it was several years ago.

The increase in positive ratings for the country has been largest among less affluent groups, who typically express lower levels of satisfaction with the state of the nation. Fully 30% of those with a high school education or less give the country a high rating, for example, up from just 18% a year ago.

Men continue to rate the condition of the country more favorably than women do, and the national ratings are colored by partisanship, as well. Just 18% of Republicans give the country a high rating, for example, compared to 23% of Independents and 38% of Democrats.

Over the past four decades, the national mood has tended to rise and fall along with the level of public trust in government.1 But the spike in public optimism today marks a divergence in this trend: Even as ratings for the country are up, the public’s level of trust in government and elected officials is flat at best. Just 31% of Americans say they trust the government at least most of the time, down from 38% in late 1997.

Indeed, one major consequence of the year-long investigation and the impeachment trial of President Clinton may be new worries about the nation’s political leadership. Asked to describe in their own words their hopes and fears for the country, one-in-five Americans mention government and politics.

For example, today 18% mention government and political leadership as a concern for the nation. This is the same number as in a February 1998 survey, after the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke, and up substantially from 8% in 1996. Just as many Americans mentioned government and politics when describing their hopes and wishes for the country’s future.

Peace and prosperity also remain top issues. Some 31% of Americans today mention economic factors as their main hope for the nation’s future, while nearly as many (29%) mention national security and war as their top worry for the country.

Looking for New Faces?

The person matters more than the political party to Americans when thinking about choosing the next president. Some 61% say they care a good deal which party wins the White House, a figure that is unchanged from before the last presidential election. But 83% say they care who gets elected, up somewhat from 78% in 1995. What’s more, just 49% of the public says the press should focus mostly on what a candidate believes about issues, down from 69% in 1995. Growing numbers of Americans say the press should focus mostly on candidates’ past accomplishments (36%, up from 23% in 1995) and what a candidate is like as a person (12%, up from 6%).

That the public places greater importance on who becomes president rather than which party wins the White House may explain why several potential Republican candidates lead in the polls, despite the party’s low ratings. But with the election more than a year away, the slate of possible presidential contenders is also divided by wide gaps in how well the candidates are known.

Nearly all voters say they have heard of Democrats Al Gore (98%) and Jesse Jackson (98%) and Republicans Dan Quayle (97%), George W. Bush (94%), and Elizabeth Dole (91%). Among these well-known contenders, Bush, Dole, and Gore draw favorable ratings: 72% of voters say they would consider voting for Bush, 64% for Dole and 52% for Gore.2 These are comparable to the ratings given leading candidates a year before the 1996 election. Some 56% of voters said in October 1995 they would consider voting for Clinton, for example, while 48% said they might vote for Bob Dole.

However, other potential candidates face greater obstacles, despite their high visibility. Most voters say there is no chance they would support Dan Quayle (54%) or Jesse Jackson (56%). And while many voters say they have heard of Patrick Buchanan (83%) and Steve Forbes (71%), neither draws a majority who would consider voting for him.

Falling somewhere in the middle are candidates like Bill Bradley, John Kerry, Lamar Alexander, and John McCain — potential candidates who are not widely known. But Bradley and McCain get mostly positive marks from voters who have heard of them. Among these voters, about half (55%) say they would consider voting for Bradley, and 58% say they would consider supporting McCain. There is less enthusiasm for Kerry and still less for Alexander.

Finally, several candidates remain unknown to the average voter. Barely one-in-five voters say they have heard of John Kasich (21%) or Gary Bauer (18%), and fewer still have heard of Robert Smith (12%). Among the small number who are familiar with these candidates, Kasich gets modest support (47% would consider voting for him), but Bauer (38%) and Smith (27%) draw less enthusiasm.

Among the leading Republican candidates, Dole has no real edge among her husband’s supporters. Although 46% of those who supported Bob Dole in 1996 say there’s a good chance they would vote for Elizabeth Dole, fully two-thirds (67%) say there is a good chance they would vote for Bush.3 At the same time, while most potential GOP candidates earn less support from women than from men, Dole does equally well with men and women. Overall, 64% of men and 64% of women say they would consider voting for Dole. In this early poll, the leading Democratic candidates do no better among women than among men (see Table, page 16).

Little Clinton Boost for Gore

Though Clinton’s job approval rating remains high at 64%, there are some signs that the president’s popularity may not transfer fully to his vice president. Among voters who now approve of the job Clinton is doing as president, just 32% say there is a good chance they would vote for Gore, and 26% say there is no chance they would vote for Gore.

Even among the majority of Americans who support continuing the Clinton administration’s policies, Gore’s numbers are mixed. Just 30% of voters who want the next president to pursue similar policies and programs — just with a different type of person — say there is a good chance they would vote for Gore, while 27% say there is no chance they would support the vice president. Not surprisingly, those who oppose Clinton’s policies — and those who wanted him removed from office — are overwhelmingly against Gore.

Specific Programs Trump General Tax Cuts

Most Americans finally accept that the federal government has made significant progress in reducing the federal budget deficit. As recently as May 1997, only 29% of the public thought progress had been made; today that number is 61%.

When it comes to utilizing that surplus, the public favors specific spending proposals over a tax cut. Assuming that roughly two-thirds of the surplus will be set aside for Social Security, 65% of the public says the remainder should be spent on education, the environment, health care, crime-fighting and military defense. Only 27% favors putting the remaining one-third of the surplus toward a tax cut.

Even Republicans only narrowly support returning the remaining surplus money to the public in the form of a tax cut — 50% support this option. However, 39% of GOP loyalists favor spending some of the surplus funds on education, the environment, health care and the like. White men and those making $75,000 a year or more express higher than average support for a tax cut, but solid majorities in every major demographic group favor the proposed spending. Democrats and Independents overwhelmingly support spending over a tax cut, 81% and 65% respectively.

Interestingly, support for a broad tax cut is much stronger when the alternative is funding for unspecified new government programs. In that case, half of the respondents (53%) say the remainder of the surplus should be used for a tax cut; only 34% opt for funding on “new government programs.”

If some form of tax cuts are in the offing, the public favors a more targeted approach over the across-the-board solution. Fully 58% say that if there is to be a tax cut, they would prefer targeted benefits for lower and middle class Americans to help offset the costs of education, child care and long-term care. Far fewer — 37% — favor the GOP’s proposed 10% across-the-board income tax cut which would apply equally to all Americans, regardless of how much money they make.

Women overwhelmingly favor the targeted approach (63% vs. 32% who would prefer an across-the-board cut). Men are more evenly divided, though a narrow majority backs targeted benefits (53% vs. 42%). Republicans split nearly down the middle: 50% support their party’s proposed 10% cut, and 46% prefer targeted benefits.

Americans express strong to moderate support for several specific tax cut proposals. Two-thirds of the public (67%) consider giving tax credits to people who provide long-term care to elderly or disabled family members a very important thing for Congress to do. Fully 61% support the idea of increasing the amount of money senior citizens can earn before their Social Security benefits are reduced. Nearly half (48%) say eliminating the so-called marriage penalty is a very important thing for Congress to do. Fewer think it is important for Congress to provide a 10% across-the-board income tax cut or lower the capital gains tax (42% and 31%, respectively).

By a 57%-to-38% margin, the public favors renewing the independent counsel law. Support is strongest among Republicans (76% favor), while Democrats are evenly divided (49%-to-47%).

Media Values in Doubt

The public’s evaluation of press values has plummeted over the past 15 years, with increasing numbers of Americans saying the news media is immoral, unprofessional and disrespectful. Consistent with this, public assessment of the news media’s job performance remains anemic, and the grades given to the press for its coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal are poor.

The decline in the Americans’ ratings of press values is startling. The number of Americans who describe the news media as immoral jumped three-fold to 38% from 13% in 1985. The increase in those who say the news media lack professionalism is comparable, climbing to 32% from 11%. And today, two-thirds of Americans say the press displays a disregard for the people it covers (67% from 48%). Two-thirds of the public also says the press tries to cover up its mistakes — a jump since 1985, when just over half of the public said so.

The press’ role in protecting democracy has also tumbled in the public mind. Americans are divided 45%-to-38% over whether the news media protect or hurt democracy. In 1985, the public saw the press as a democratic caretaker by a two-to-one margin (54%-to-23%). In addition Americans now split evenly (41%-to-42%) over whether the press is too critical of the United States, a significant change from the mid-1980s when the public described the news media as standing up for America by a 52%-to-30% margin.

While a majority of Americans continue to see the news media’s influence on the rise, the number who say it is in decline has nearly doubled since 1985. Today, 32% say the press is declining in influence, up from 17%. In another remarkable decline
in esteem for the news media, a 56% majority of the public describes the press as politically biased, an 11 percentage point increase over this same period.

Low Performance Ratings

Public criticism of the way the press does its job has not significantly worsened as a result of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Currently, 58% of the public doubts the general accuracy of news reports and 31% thinks that criticism by the press keeps political leaders from doing their jobs — both numbers are virtually unchanged from February 1997. Similarly, the 72% of Americans who now see the media as propagating scandals mirrors the 74% who felt this way in 1995. And, the public remains divided in its opinion of the media, just as it was prior to the barrage of Lewinsky coverage (49% favorable, 49% unfavorable now vs. 50%-to-48% in 1997).

The perception that news organizations drive controversies by devoting so much time and space to the personal and ethical behavior of public figures holds across races, ages, genders, and education and income levels. Even among those who disapprove of Clinton’s performance as president and those who are critical of the Senate impeachment vote, six-in-ten share the view that the media perpetuates scandals.

Similarly, the belief that news stories and reports are often inaccurate is consistent for solid majorities of Democrats and Republicans, Clinton supporters and detractors, those who approve of the Senate vote and those who disapprove. Some of the harshest criticism is from blacks, Americans age 50 and up, and the less affluent; about two-thirds of each group finds the press often inaccurate.

Finally, a significant minority of the public questions the press’ adversarial role in our democracy, with nearly one-third saying that criticism by the press keeps political leaders from doing their jobs. This is almost a two-fold increase since 1985, when only 17% of the public expressed concern about the negative effects of the press’ watchdog role, but is unchanged from the 32% who said so in pre-Lewinsky 1997.

Poor Grades for Impeachment Coverage

Given the public’s criticism of the press’ values and performance in general, it is no surprise that a solid majority of Americans give the media poor grades for their coverage of the investigation and impeachment trial of President Clinton. The news media get a “C” or worse from 59% of Americans.

The press draws poor grades from a majority of all ages, races, genders, and income levels. Even those who disagree on the appropriateness of the final Senate vote agree on their rating of the press: 59% of both groups give the news media a “C” or worse for their coverage. Some of the sharpest criticism comes from college graduates (67% give poor grades) and Republicans (64% rated the press coverage “C” or lower, compared to 55% of Democrats and 58% of Independents).

These harsh evaluations of the press coverage of the investigation and impeachment of President Clinton are closely linked to the public’s similarly negative views of the news media’s values. Those who gave the press poor grades for their coverage of this particular controversy were especially critical of the news media’s values, practices and watchdog role.

The differences between the attitudes of these harsh and lenient graders of the press are consistent across every measure of the media’s values. Three-quarters of those who view press coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky controversy negatively accuse news organizations of not caring about the people they cover and trying to cover up mistakes: Only 57% and 53%, respectively, of those who gave the press positive ratings agree. Two-thirds of harsh graders say the press is politically biased; less than half (43%) of lenient graders agree. And, 46% of critics of the scandal coverage attribute immorality to news organizations, compared to just 27% of those less critical of the media’s handling of the Clinton-Lewinsky story.

News Interest Index

With videotaped depositions and a final vote in the Senate, President Clinton’s impeachment trial topped the news interest index for the month with 31% of the public following the trial in the Senate very closely, up from a low of 22% in mid-January. More than one-third of Republicans and Democrats paid very close attention to the story, compared to 25% of Independents.

Notwithstanding the recent flurry of speculation that Hillary Clinton might run for the U.S. Senate in New York, only 19% of the public said they were following the story very closely in this poll. Interest in the story was higher in the East, where 28% of adults paid very close attention. Not surprisingly, more women (21%) followed the story very closely than did men (16%), and interest was highest among African-Americans (30% followed it very closely, compared to 17% of whites).

Before the verdict, nearly one-in-four Americans were paying very close attention to the Jasper, Texas murder trial, in which a white man was charged with dragging a black man to his death behind a truck. Interest in the story was particularly high among blacks, with 48% following it very closely, more than twice that of whites (21%). The recent labor dispute and flight cancellations at American Airlines drew the very close attention of only 18% of the public, and reports of corruption in the International Olympic Committee continued to garner little public interest, with just 11% following the story very closely.

In international news, interest in NATO efforts to end ethnic conflict in Kosovo, Serbia remained relatively low. Despite recent increases in America’s military presence in the region and threats of military action, only one-in-ten adults followed this story very closely — a number unchanged since mid-January. Similarly, only 5% of the public paid very close attention to demonstrations throughout Europe protesting the capture of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan.

  1. See "Deconstructing Distrust: How Americans View Government" (March 1998), p. 6.
  2. All figures concerning support for possible presidential candidates are based on registered voters.
  3. There has been some speculation that some voters may be confusing George W. Bush with his father, the former president, but the younger Bush gets equally strong support whether he is identified as "Texas Governor George W. Bush" or simply as "George W. Bush."