September 15, 1999

Too Much Money, Too Much Media Say Voters

Introduction and Summary

Americans are showing signs of disaffection with a presidential campaign that is just beginning. The public thinks the press and large campaign contributors are having too much influence on who gets nominated, and a 60% majority thinks voters themselves have too little say.

The latest Pew Research Center survey, conducted on the heels of protracted controversy about coverage of alleged cocaine use by George W. Bush, found public reservations about news coverage of most “character issues” ranging from youthful drug use to psychological counseling. The poll also shows only a 53% majority of Americans now saying that press scrutiny of political candidates is worth it and a plurality rating political coverage as only fair or poor.

The response of the public is to tune out. Few are paying close attention to campaign news, while at the same time an increasing number of people think the press is overcovering the campaigns. Not surprisingly in this light, many Americans cannot even name a single candidate for the two parties’ nominations. Fully 37% of Pew’s respondents could not offer up the name of a GOP candidate, and even more — 50% — could not name a Democratic candidate, without prompting.

Public inattention to the campaign is about the only hopeful sign in this survey for Al Gore’s candidacy. Opinion about the vice president is not improving. As in other recent nationwide surveys, Gore continues to lag behind Bush in the general election matchup. This poll also shows his support for the Democratic nomination softening.

These are the principal findings of a September 1-12, 1999, Pew Research Center nationwide telephone poll of 1,205 adults. The allowance for sampling error and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

More Uncertainty Among Democrats

With Bill Bradley now formally in the race for the Democratic nomination, support for Gore as the party’s nominee has slipped, especially among Independents who lean Democratic. The latest survey finds 58% of all Democrats and Independents who lean Democratic saying they would like to see Gore become the nominee — down from 65% in July. But the vice president’s support has tumbled more among Independent Democrats who now divide their loyalties about equally between Bradley and Gore. In July, they favored Gore to Bradley — 61% to 33%. As well as helping Bradley, Gore’s declining support has created uncertainty among Democratic voters. The percent of Democrats who say they won’t vote for either or are undecided has nearly doubled since July — 6% then to 10% now.

Gore’s personal image remains largely unchanged, as he is not penetrating the public’s consciousness. Remarkably, less than half (46%) of the public and only 50% of Democrats can even come up with Gore’s name when asked to name Democrats running for their party’s nomination. As to image, the same number of Americans describe Gore in positive terms as did in April (20% vs. 19%). Still nearly as many use words which, while not necessarily negative, poke fun at the vice president, such as “boring,” “stiff” or “dull.”

Big Bush Lead

Bush’s lead over Gore in the presidential horse race remains firm, just as Gore’s support from within his own party has begun to show signs of weakening. Bush now leads Gore among registered voters in a hypothetical matchup by 54% to 39%.

At this early stage, Bush’s big lead over Gore does not appear vulnerable to a third party challenge from Pat Buchanan. However, in a closer race a Reform Party bid by the conservative commentator might mean trouble for Bush. Currently, Bush runs nearly as strong in a hypothetical three-way matchup as he does in the two-way contest with Gore. When choosing among Bush, Gore, and Pat Buchanan as a Reform Party candidate, fully 49% of registered voters prefer Bush; 35% would vote for Gore and 10% opt for Buchanan. However, more Bush supporters than Gore voters migrate to Buchanan. Of those registered voters who choose Buchanan in the three-way contest, 62% chose Bush in a two-way match up; only 30% chose Gore.

Within his party Bush maintains his big lead in popular support for the GOP nomination. When asked in an open-ended format to name any of the Republican presidential contenders, fully 54% of Americans and six-in-ten Republicans can identify Bush. Only 16% of the public and 22% of Republicans can name Elizabeth Dole. The names of the rest of the field are recalled by about 10% of Republicans or fewer.

Bush is the first choice nominee of 56% of Republicans and Independents who lean Republican, and 21% say he is their second choice. These numbers are largely unchanged from the 60% and 19%, respectively, who voiced support for Bush in July. There are no signs that any other GOP candidate has begun to break through at the national level. Bush’s closest competition comes from Elizabeth Dole: 15% of Republican voters say she is their first choice, 28% make her their second choice. None of the other GOP hopefuls reach double digit support. Forbes and McCain stand at 5% and 6%, while Quayle, Keyes, Hatch and Bauer all fall at 5% or below.

While Bush remains highly popular in and out of his party, the Texas governor’s image has been tarnished in recent months. More Americans now describe Bush in negative terms than did in March. Then, 36% used positive words or phrases to describe Governor Bush, 12% volunteered negative descriptors. Now, while positive descriptions still dominate, 21% use negative terms. Fewer now describe Bush in neutral terms.

Hands Off Personal Lives

In the midst of controversy over press coverage of Bush’s past, the public draws some clear lines about what is fair game for news media scrutiny. Out of 13 hypothetical stories about presidential candidates’ personal lives, clear majorities believe the press should almost always report on only four of them. Nearly three-quarters of the public (71%) believe that if a candidate is known to have physically abused a spouse, the press should almost always report the story. Just under two-thirds (65%) think a candidate’s failure to pay income taxes should almost always be reported. Majorities also believe lying about one’s academic or military record should be pursued by reporters (61% for both).

Past marital infidelity should not be covered say most Americans. Only 23% say such a story should almost always be reported on; 21% say this should sometimes be reported. If a candidate is having an affair during the course of the campaign, the public is much less forgiving. Forty-three percent say this conduct should almost always be reported, another 20% say it should sometimes be reported. These numbers are largely unchanged from 1987 when 41% said ongoing affairs should almost always be reported and 25% said they should sometimes be reported.

The public expresses some ambivalence about the newsworthiness of past drug use. Only 23% believe news organizations should almost always pursue a story about a candidate smoking marijuana as a young adult. Another 19% say this should sometimes be reported depending on the particular circumstances. A 57% majority say such a story should almost never be reported. Cocaine use is viewed as somewhat more newsworthy. Just over one-third (35%) of Americans think stories about a candidate using cocaine as a young adult should almost always be reported. Still, fully 40% say these stories should almost never be reported. Similarly, 36% of the public says the press should almost always report on a candidate who is found to have had a drinking problem in the past.

Americans are much less interested in hearing about the sexual orientati
on of political candidates nowadays than was the case a decade ago. Today, only 38% of Americans say if a candidate is a homosexual, this should almost always be reported by the media. This is down from 55% in 1987. The public is relatively uninterested in hearing about a candidate’s psychiatric background. Fewer than three-in-ten (28%) think that the media should almost always report if a candidate has been treated by a psychiatrist in the past, with one-in-five interested in whether a candidate has taken antidepressants. Of least interest to the public is whether a female candidate has had an abortion — 17% say this should always be reported.

Republicans and Democrats have markedly different views about what is and is not newsworthy. On eight out of the 13 examples, Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats to endorse a more aggressive role for the media. The most polarizing issue involves marital infidelity. Fully 57% of Republicans say that if a candidate is having an affair during the campaign, news organizations should almost always report on this. Only 30% of Democrats share this view.

Republicans are also tougher than Democrats on lying. Seven-in-ten GOP backers (71%) think the media should always report if a candidate has exaggerated his or her military or academic record. Among Democrats, a bare majority consider such stories newsworthy (52% and 53%, respectively).

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say the press should pursue stories about past marijuana use: 26% of Republicans vs. 17% of Democrats think this should always be reported. However, when it comes to cocaine use, the two groups are largely in agreement — 36% of Republicans and 35% of Democrats consider this highly newsworthy.