February 25, 1999

Public Votes for Continuity and Change in 2000

Introduction and Summary

The anomalies of American public opinion continue even as the impeachment trial fades into history. Today, the public view of the state of the nation is much improved, despite the fact that a major component of that view — trust in government — remains low. Politically, the public expresses negative views of the Republican Party, yet is more inclined to vote for leading GOP presidential candidates than Democrats. Moreover, Americans say they want the next president to carry on the policies and programs of the current administration, but almost no one wants another Clinton, and support for Vice President Al Gore is tepid.

The only clear and consistent trend is discontent with the news media. Public criticism of press practices and coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal continues. And the negative view of the news media now extends to its values, with growing numbers of Americans describing the press as immoral, unprofessional and uncaring about the country. Just about the only good news for the press in a new Pew Research Center survey is that Americans still believe the press cares about the job it does.

The next election is still almost two years away, but Americans have some ideas about what they want in their next president and rather definite ideas about what — and who — they don’t want. A modest 54%-to-41% majority says it wants a president who offers policies and programs similar to those of the Clinton administration. However, an overwhelming 78% says that even taking into account Bill Clinton’s personal strengths they want a different kind of person in the White House.

Majorities of registered voters who know them also say they don’t want Dan Quayle, Patrick Buchanan, Lamar Alexander, Robert Smith, Gary Bauer, or Steve Forbes to be president. In contrast to this largely ideological group of candidates, substantial percentages say there is a chance they would vote for perceived moderate candidates such as Republicans George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole and John McCain or Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley.

Potential support for more middle-of-the-road candidates is in keeping with the moderation observed in the results of the mid-term elections and the public’s continued satisfaction with the status quo. Americans today not only rate the state of their own lives very highly, but they also rate the country as a whole more highly than they have in over 30 years.

Not so the news media. The press gets barely a “C” for its final grade on coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and the public continues to give the news media poor performance grades for accuracy, correcting mistakes and the way they play their watchdog role. Moreover, the new survey finds a striking decline in the public’s perception of news media values since the mid-1980s. The number of Americans seeing news organizations as immoral has tripled, leaving the public evenly split (38%-to-40%) on whether the press is immoral or not. Similarly, the two-to-one belief that the press protected democracy in 1985 has evaporated. Today, the public is divided, with 45% saying the news media protect democracy and 38% saying they hurt it.

These are the principal findings of the Pew Research Center’s latest nationwide telephone survey of 1,203 adults. The survey was conducted February 18-21, 1999 and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.