October 18, 1999

Candidate Qualities May Trump Issues in 2000

Other Important Findings and Analyses

A Small Boost for McCain

Little has changed over the past month in the races for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations. Recent news coverage of problems with Gore’s campaign has done little to hurt him among Democrats, who continue to support him by a nearly two-to-one margin over Bradley (60% vs. 31%). In the GOP race, Bush maintains a commanding lead over his challengers, with fully 63% of registered Republicans and Independents who lean Republican choosing him as their first choice. Elizabeth Dole follows a distant second, with only 10% saying she is their first choice and 27% their second choice.

In one shift over the past month, a significant gain in support for John McCain has moved him up in the ranks: 22% of registered Republicans choose him as their first or second choice, placing him as a clear third behind Dole.

Ventura Remarks Register

With the exception of Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura’s comments in Playboy magazine, recent political news has captured little public attention. Nearly half of all Americans (47%) say they haven’t heard about the proposed debates between Gore and Bradley, although eight-in-ten Democrats (and even 52% of Republicans) would be interested in watching the two debate. Likewise, 47% haven’t heard anything about Bush’s recent criticisms of Republican Party policies. Roughly one-in-ten have heard a lot about either story.

Only 22% of the public have heard a lot about the possibility that Pat Buchanan may leave the Republican party. One-in-four (24%) have heard a great deal about Dan Quayle dropping out of the primaries — another 52% say they have heard something about Quayle’s decision.

Speculation about Warren Beatty entering the race for the White House also failed to garner much attention, with just 21% saying they have heard a lot about it. Only the recent comments of Jesse Ventura on organized religion and other topics stand out in the public’s mind — 42% have heard a lot about this story, and another 33% have heard something.

Two Year Low for GOP Approval

Even though Bush’s criticism of the efforts by congressional Republicans was not closely followed by the public, in the week following his remarks the job approval for Republican leaders in Congress hit 34% — the lowest approval level since June 1997, when just 33% approved of the Republican leaders’ performance. Job approval for President Clinton stands at 59%.

Are They Honest, Can They Connect?

Overwhelming majorities place honesty and connecting with people at the top of the list of items that are very important to know about presidential candidates. Fully 82% say that learning about a candidate’s reputation for honesty is very important. A sold majority (71%) say the same of a candidate’s ability to connect with average people.

The only other factor that is ranked as very important by a majority (58%) is a candidate’s past voting record or policy positions in public office.

Notably, many other aspects of candidates’ personal lives are considered less critical. Whether a candidate is an active church member is considered very important by only one-quarter of Americans. Less than 20% of the public rate other factors such as a spouse’s professional background, personal finances, and a candidate’s children as very important.

A candidate’s military background, a subject often covered by the news media, is rated by only 19% as very important. Among men over age 50, however, 36% see it as very important, compared to less than 20% of men under 50.

These findings are in line with last month’s Pew Research Center poll which showed that Americans are increasingly telling the news media to back off reporting about candidates’ personal lives. Majorities said the press should almost always report spouse abuse, income tax evasion, and lies about military service and academic records. But most people also said that a past extramarital affair, marijuana use as a young adult, the use of anti-depressants, or a female candidate’s abortion should not be covered by the media. Pluralities said that a presidential candidate’s homosexuality or past cocaine use should almost never be reported.(1)

In the current poll, the importance of a candidate’s honesty is stressed across the board. However, more Republicans than Democrats say honesty is very important, at 92% and 75%, respectively. Non-whites are particularly sensitive to a candidate’s ability to connect with average people, with 83% saying it is very important compared to 68% of whites.

Although the public considers learning about presidential candidates’ personal qualities such as honesty and the ability to connect with average people as critical, it continues to say that news organizations should devote the most attention to candidates’ stands on issues. Nearly two-in-three (63%) say a candidate’s beliefs about important issues should get the most coverage from the news media. In contrast, only 27% say a candidate’s past accomplishments, and 8% cite a candidate’s personal qualities as deserving the spotlight.

Women place more emphasis on the issues than men. Fully 69% of women say news organizations should focus on issues compared to 58% of men. Almost one-third (32%) of men want the media to concentrate on a candidate’s past accomplishments; 22% of women agree.

No Consensus on Issues

Despite the importance voters place on issues, no single issue currently dominates the public agenda. When asked what one issue should be the next president’s top priority, nearly equal percentages of Americans choose shoring up Social Security and Medicare, keeping the economy strong and improving the educational system.(2)

Next in line are dealing with the nation’s moral breakdown and improving the health care system. Americans give less priority to preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, dealing with the problems of the poor and needy, dealing with taxes, and reducing crime.

In the past, single issues have more clearly dominated the public’s agenda. In October 1995, balancing the budget and dealing with the moral breakdown were the two top priorities. In November 1991, jobs and education were foremost in the public’s mind.

Agendas differ substantially depending on party affiliation. Republicans would like to see the president focus on the economy above other issues. Democrats rank Social Security and Medicare first. The biggest partisan divide can be seen on the issue of morality. One-in-five Republicans say this should be the president’s top priority, compared to only 8% of Democrats.

The Potential Appeal of Policy Questions to American Voters

The Pew survey tested a series of more specific policy questions to gauge their potential resonance with the public, as well as their relevance for the upcoming campaign. The issues ranged from the so-called digital divide to the role of the U.S. military in internal conflicts around the world. Respondents were asked how much they had heard about the issues, whether they had discussed the issues with family and friends, and how interested they were in learning where the presidential candidates stand on the issues.

Only two of the eleven issues tested in the poll are clearly on the public’s radar screen. Roughly 40% of Americans have heard a lot about the debate over whether U.S. troops should go into another country to stop the killing of innocent civilians in a civil war. As many have heard a lot about how to provide health insurance to children and adults who cannot afford it. Eight-in-ten have heard at least something about these issues.

Half as many have heard about a second tier of issues. Only 23% have heard a lot about whether to invest a portion of Social Security funds in the stock market. Even fewer (20%) have heard a lot about whether the U.S. and other western nations have a greater responsibility than less developed countries to deal with global environmental damage. Roughly as many have heard a lot about the move to ban soft money contributions to political parties (19%). And 18% have heard a lot about how to make the workplace better suit the needs of working parents and how to reduce the gap between rich and poor people and rich and poor school districts.

A third tier of issues has yet to penetrate. Only 17% have heard a lot about specific proposals designed to keep Medicare financially sound. One-in-ten Americans (11%) have heard about how the international financial system can be changed to make the world economy more stable. Similarly, 9% have heard a lot about the digital divide — that is, how to make sure poorer families have access to computers and the Internet.

Many Americans say they have talked about some of these issues with family, friends and coworkers. U.S. troop involvement overseas and how to provide health insurance to all Americans are the two most discussed issues, just as they are the two problems tested that Americans have heard the most about.

Nearly half of the public say they have talked about workplace flexibility and Medicare reforms — two issues with potential implications for people’s day-to-day lives. The gap between rich and poor people has also been a topic
of conversation for many Americans, though most have not heard much about this issue. Campaign finance, the global economy, and the digital divide are areas that have not fully engaged the public.

There are significant racial gaps on these issues. Black Americans are significantly more likely to have both heard and talked about providing health insurance to those who can’t afford it, reducing the gap between rich and poor school districts and making sure poorer people have access to computers. Nearly half (45%) have talked about the digital divide with family and friends, compared to only 19% of whites.

Whites, on the other hand, are more likely to have heard and talked about investing Social Security funds in the stock market. In addition, more whites than blacks have talked about U.S. troop involvement in civil wars abroad and banning soft money contributions to political parties.

Men are much more likely than women to have heard a lot about most of these issues. Nonetheless, women are often more likely to have talked about them with family and friends. For example, more women than men have talked about Medicare reforms, workplace issues and the gap between rich and poor. Men are more likely than women to have discussed U.S. troop involvement and America’s global environmental responsibility.

Americans have at least some interest in hearing where the candidates stand on most of these issues. However, only three issues stand out as attracting strong interest from most citizens. Fully 62% of Americans say it’s very important for them to hear what position the candidates take on the issue of providing health insurance to those who can’t afford it. Nearly as many say it’s very important for them to learn where the candidates stand on the role of the U.S. military in conflicts abroad. Half of the public places great importance on hearing what the candidates have to say about reforming the Medicare system.

The debate over whether to privatize part of Social Security is deemed very important by 46% of the public. Roughly 40% say it’s very important to learn where the candidates stand on reducing the gap between rich and poor people and, more specifically, rich and poor school districts (44% and 41%, respectively). Americans are relatively less interested in where candidates stand on soft money contributions (35% very important), workplace flexibility (34%) and efforts to strengthen the global economy (33%).

While Americans have heard a good deal about the United States’ responsibility for dealing with global environmental damage, few consider this a very important issue. More than half (54%) have heard at least something about this issue, yet only 32% feel it is very important to know where the candidates stand.

Gaining access to computers and the Internet for the underprivileged is an issue which has clearly not captured the public’s imagination. Only 9% of Americans have heard a lot about this issue, and 18% are very interested in what the candidates have to say about it.

Interest in what the candidates have to say about several of these issues varies according to level of education and income. Lower income and less educated Americans place more emphasis on policies that may affect them more directly, such as health insurance, Medicare and reducing the gap between the rich and poor. Two-thirds of those with family incomes under $30,000 are very interested in hearing where the candidates stand on Medicare, this compares with 37% of those with incomes over $50,000. Although there is strong interest across the board in the issue of providing health insurance to children and adults who can’t afford it, people who never attended college or have family incomes under $30,000 show slightly more concern (63% and 67%, respectively), than college graduates (59%) and those making over $50,000 (56%).

For the most part, the public thinks the issues tested are of interest to ordinary Americans. However, a few are viewed as elite issues that mainly interest experts and people in Washington. Six-in-ten Americans think the United States’ responsibility with regard to the global environment is an issue that mainly interests experts rather than ordinary citizens. Nearly as many (58%) say the same about efforts to make the world economy more stable by changing the international economic system.

In addition, proposals to ban soft money contributions to political parties are viewed as somewhat more of an elite issue than one that interests the masses (51% vs. 46%). And in spite of the very real implications for ordinary people, the debate over how to make sure poorer Americans get access to computers and the Internet is seen on balance as an inside-the-Beltway issue (50% vs. 46% who say it interests ordinary folks).

In contrast, roughly eight-in-ten Americans say workplace flexibility, universal health coverage and Medicare reforms interest ordinary people. Approximately seven-in-ten say the gap between rich and poor, the role of the U.S. military in conflicts around the world, and what to do about Social Security are of interest to most Americans.

The Uninsured Top HMO Reform

While HMO reform has dominated the health care debate in Washington this year, most Americans feel priority should be given to insuring the uninsured. When asked which is the more important health care problem facing the country today, 57% say it is providing health insurance coverage for those who cannot afford it; 38% say it is reforming HMOs and managed care plans. Many Americans have followed the recent proposals by presidential candidates for expanding health care coverage, and a strong majority are interested in learning where the candidates stand on this issue.

Less affluent Americans are most in favor of focusing on expanding coverage. Among those who have never attended college, 63% think providing health insurance for the uninsured is the more significant problem, 30% cite HMO reform. College graduates divide evenly among the two: 47% say expanding coverage is more important, 49% name HMOs. Similarly, those with household incomes of less than $30,000 a year opt for providing health insurance for all over reforming HMOs by a margin of 65% to 28%. Those with incomes over $50,000 a year split evenly: 48% to 49%.

Democrats place more importance on expanding coverage than do Republicans. Nonetheless, when given the choice, each group opts for coverage over HMO reform.

Online News Surge!

Most Americans (80%) continue to get their national and international news from television, but the percent getting most of their news online has nearly doubled from 6% in January to 11% today. And, the percent of online news enthusiasts who say they use other news sources less often has increased by 6 percentage points since 1998 (11% to the current 17%). The online news habit may be starting accidentally. More than one-half — 55% — of online users say that they come across news items when they are on the Internet for another purpose, a slight increase from 48% who said this in November 1998.

Of those who get most of their news from TV, cable news networks garner 35% of the audience, local TV news gets 31%, and 22% mainly watch network TV news. Newspapers are preferred by almost one-half of Americans (48%), a 6 percentage point increase since January.

Overall, young people and men are more apt to go online for most of their news about national and international issues compared to other gender and age groups. Among those under age 30, 18% are major users of the Internet for news, compared to just 3% of senior citizens. Young people also tend to go online for news at about the same rate as they principally rely on the radio (18%) but more than magazines (3%). Men more than women get most of their national and international news from the Internet at 14% and 8%, respectively.

More specifically, the increase in the use of the Internet for news has been greater among young women and middle-aged men, groups whose online use has lagged in the past. Earlier this year, 7% of women under 30 said online was their primary news source compared to 18% today. Similarly, in January 1999, only 8% of men aged 30 to 49 used the Internet as their main news source vs. 21% now.

Those who use the Internet as their primary source of news generally had similar interest in prominent news stories this month as those who rely on TV or newspapers.

News Interest Index

Hurricane Floyd was the top news interest index story this month, with 45% following it very closely. Hurricane Floyd drew a larger audience than Hurricane Mitch last year (36%) but less than Hurricane Andrew in 1992 (66%). The San Francisco earthquake in 1989 was the all time natural disaster attention-getter with 73% having followed it very closely.

In other recent stories, almost one-quarter (24%) of Americans closely followed proposals by presidential candidates to provide health insurance to people currently uninsured. However, news in general about candidates for the 2000 presidential election was followed very closely by 17%, similar to last month’s 15%.

Blacks, Democrats, and older Americans paid the most attention to news about the health insurance proposals. While 22% of whites paid very close attention to this story, 41% of blacks did the same. Four-in-ten senior citizens followed this health care story very closely compared to 15% of those under age 30. And 34% of Democrats watched very closely compared to 19% of Republicans and 20% of Independents.

The earthquake in Taiwan was watched very closely by 17% of the public; in comparison, the earthquake in Turkey in August was followed very closely by 27%. In other international news, the political unrest and violence in East Timor was followed very closely by 7%. In comparison, the civil war in Zaire in 1997 was followed very closely by 4%.

1. For more information, see “Too Much Money, Too Much Media Say Voters,” Pew Research Center, September 15, 1999.

2. This lack of consensus is also apparent when the public is asked what one issue they would like to hear the presidential candidates talk about. See “Third Party Chances Limited,” Pew Research Center, July 22, 1999.

Cite this publication: “Candidate Qualities May Trump Issues in 2000.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (October 18, 1999) http://www.people-press.org/1999/10/18/candidate-qualities-may-trump-issues-in-2000/, accessed on July 23, 2014.