March 23, 2000

Bush Pays Price for Primary Victory

Other Important Findings and Analyses

Issues Edge For Gore

Gore not only has improved his image, he holds a commanding lead over Bush as the candidate best able to handle most major policy issues. The vice president out-polls Bush on nine of 15 issues tested. The biggest gaps come on traditional Democratic issues, such as improving conditions for minority groups and dealing with the problems of the poor. But Gore is also seen as the candidate best able to improve the health care system, prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and keep Social Security and Medicare financially sound.

Bush has a clear advantage on only two issues, but they are potentially important topics in the campaign. By a 41%-25% margin, Bush is seen as the candidate best able to control the price of gasoline, an issue that has already captured the public’s attention. Bush also bests Gore on campaign finance reform — an issue the vice president has emphasized more heavily since McCain’s departure from the race.

Bush also runs even with Gore on keeping the economy strong and improving education — two issues which frequently top the public’s list of most important priorities. But on taxes, a centerpiece of Bush’s campaign, Gore holds him to a virtual tie (42% for Gore, 40% for Bush).

Former McCain backers now prefer Gore over Bush on 10 of the 15 issues. And in almost every case, they support Gore more enthusiastically than the general public. On the issue of campaign finance reform, McCain backers prefer Bush over Gore (38% vs. 27%). However, more than one-third (35%) don’t see either candidate as best able to deal with this issue.

Clinton Ties Go Both Ways

While Gore’s ties to the Clinton administration are a liability in some respects, the credit Clinton receives for the current economic prosperity works to Gore’s benefit. Nearly one-third (31%) of Americans give Clinton a great deal of credit for improved conditions in the country these days, and another 44% give him some credit. Among those who give Clinton a great deal of credit, fully 77% say Gore could do a better job than Bush in ensuring that conditions continue to improve.

Still, the public is divided over the effect Clinton has had on the political system. A plurality of Americans (39%) say Clinton has made things better, 28% say he’s made things worse, and another 28% say he hasn’t had much of an effect. When asked which candidate could do a better job of improving the way things work in Washington, the public divides fairly evenly — 44% choose Bush and 40% opt for Gore.

Gore’s Vulnerability

Americans’ reactions to a number of possible campaign themes underscore the pluses and minuses of Gore’s links to Clinton. Gore’s ability to carry on Clinton’s successful economic policies is perhaps his strongest selling point. Fully 45% of the public said hearing about this would make them more likely to vote for the vice president in the fall. Still, 35% said hearing this wouldn’t make any difference in their vote choice.

On the other hand, hearing that Gore took part in unethical fund raising practices during the 1996 presidential campaign would make a majority of Americans (52%) less inclined to vote for him. This message resonates with more potential voters than any of the others included in the poll. Furthermore, hearing that Gore has been part of a scandal-ridden administration would turn off 41% of voters. About half of the public (52%) say this wouldn’t make any difference.

Gore’s stand on abortion is seen, on balance, as a positive for the vice president. Roughly four-in-ten Americans (41%) say hearing that Gore strongly supports a woman’s right to choose an abortion would make them more likely to vote for him; 28% say this would make them less likely to vote for Gore.

But Gore’s attempt to sell himself as a champion of campaign finance reform may not register strongly with voters. A plurality (44%) says their vote choice wouldn’t be affected by this statement, while 39% say this would make them more likely to vote for Gore. Former McCain supporters are an exception to this: Fully 53% say hearing Gore supports campaign finance reform would make them more likely to vote for him, only 33% say they would be unaffected by this statement. But more in this group still say Bush rather than Gore would do a better job of dealing with campaign finance reform.

Bush Strength on Education

Bush’s record in improving the Texas educational system might prove to be his strongest campaign theme. Fully 52% of Americans say hearing that Bush has improved the educational system in Texas would make them more likely to vote for him. Even among Democrats, 37% say this message would make them more likely to vote for Bush.

Other central themes of the Bush campaign, such as his calls for cutting taxes and restoring integrity to the White House, are also positive for the governor. About half (49%) of Americans say hearing that Bush has pledged to cut taxes would make them more likely to vote for him; 15% say this would make them less likely to vote for Bush, and 34% say it wouldn’t make a difference. Bush’s pledge to bring morality back to the White House would make 48% of voters more likely to vote for him; 37% say this message wouldn’t affect their vote one way or another.

Of all the themes tested, Bush’s biggest negative is the contention he doesn’t know enough about the issues to be president. Nearly half of the public (47%) says hearing this about the governor would make them less likely to vote for him; 43% say it would make no difference.

Even among Republicans this message may prove damaging. More than one-third (36%) of GOP loyalists say the notion that Bush may not know enough to be president would make them less likely to support him in the fall.

On balance, the charge that Bush has too many ties to the far-right wing of the Republican Party has only a modest impact. Nearly half of Americans (48%) say hearing this about Bush would not affect their vote; 38% say this would make them less likely to vote for him. His stance on gun control is neither a positive nor a negative. One-third (34%) say hearing that Bush mostly opposes stronger gun control measures would make them less likely to vote for him; a nearly equal percentage (35%) says this would make them more likely to vote for him.

For former McCain enthusiasts, however, these two issues have a slightly greater impact. Nearly half (48%) of McCain supporters say hearing about Bush’s links to the far right would make them less likely to vote for him. Similarly, McCain supporters show less ambivalence on the issue of Bush’s stand on gun control. Fully 46% say this would make them less likely to support Bush, 29% say more likely and 24% say it wouldn’t make a difference.

Public Satisfied with Candidates …

Overall, Americans are content with their choices for this year’s presidential election. More than seven-in-ten were able to name the probable nominees on an unprompted basis, and fully 60% say they are very or fairly satisfied with the likely choices. This represents a significant increase from 1996, when 47% of voters expressed satisfaction, and an even larger increase from 1992 when only 35% were satisfied.

Republican and Democrat voters are equally satisfied with their choices — 69% and 71%, respectively. On balance, independents are dissatisfied with the choice of candidates (57% vs. 42% satisfied). However, they’re much happier than they were in the last two presidential elections, both of which included a viable independent candidate.

When voters were asked specifically how satisfied they were with the choices of Bush and Gore, 63% expressed overall satisfaction. This is down marginally from July, when 76% said they would be satisfied if Bush and Gore were to become the nominees. Not surprisingly, more than half of former McCain supporters (56%) are unsatisfied with the current lineup, and 25% say they are not at all satisfied.

Relatively few Americans would like to see a third-party candidate get into the race for president. Only 36% say that, with Bush and Gore as the nominees, they are more interested in a third party candidate; most (56%) say they’re less interested. When the question was posed in July, the public divided more evenly — 40% more interested, 46% less interested.

… But Not the Process

In spite of its seeming contentment with the nominees, the public gives lukewarm ratings to the primary process. Only 41% say they think this year’s presidential primaries have been a good way of determining the best qualified nominees. Fully 50% give the primaries a failing grade. Still, the process is rated slightly higher than it was in either 1996 or 1992, when nearly 60% of Americans said the primaries didn’t do a good job selecting the nominees.

McCain and Bradley supporters are among the most critical of the primary process — roughly six-in-ten say the primaries were not a good way to pick the candidates. Republicans are among the most satisfied, with 49% giving the process a thumbs up.

When asked what bothers them most about election campaigns, the amount of money spent by the candidates and the negative tenor of campaigns tops the list. Americans are less bothered by the things politicians say to get elected, and they express relatively little concern about political advertising. News coverage of campaigns is the least bothersome aspect; only 13% say this bothers them very much.

In 1996 concern over negative campaigning edged out the amount of money spent. However, in the wake of record-breaking expenditures this year — and a renewed focus on campaign finance reform — money is now the top concern.

There are significant generational differences on these issues. Older Americans express much more outrage about the money in campaigns and political advertising than do their younger counterparts. Fully 68% of those over age 65 say they are very bothered by the amount of money spent, compared to 58% of those age 30-49 and only 47% of those under age 30. Concern over negative campaigning is nearly universal, though middle- aged Americans express the strongest opinions on this matter.

Online Voting Favored by Young

The idea of voting over the Internet is attracting the public’s interest. When asked to choose between voting in a booth at a polling place on Election Day, and casting ballots over the Internet through the mail during the weeks leading up to Election Day, more than one-in-four (26%) Americans opt for voting online. But old-fashioned ballot voting is still the choice of a majority (52%) of Americans.

Young people and those making more than $75,000 stand out as the only two demographic groups who would rather vote over the Internet than in a booth at a polling place or by mail. More than four-in-ten (41%) of those age 18-29 would prefer to bypass more conventional methods, compared to just 5% of those age 65 and over. A similar percentage (42%) of people making over $75,000 would prefer to vote via the Internet compared to 29% of those earning $30,000 to $49,999, and 17% of those making less than $30,000.

Although college graduates and online users in general don’t choose the Internet over voting in a booth, both groups are very interested in having that option. Fully 35% of college graduates and 31% of those with some college education say they would rather vote online compared to 23% of high school graduates and 14% of those with less than a high school education. Online users narrowly prefer booth voting to Internet voting, 43% to 40% respectively.

Those who live in the West, where voting by mail is more prevalent, are less inclined toward booth voting. Only 38% of Westerners prefer this traditional method, compared to 53% of those in the East and in the South, and 60% of those in the Midwest. Westerners are also among the most likely to prefer Internet voting (33%).

Little Pro-McCain Bias Seen

Americans generally approve of press coverage of the presidential campaign, and most people are satisfied with the amount of coverage. Complaints that the media have been too easy on John McCain appear to have little resonance beyond the Beltway, as strong majorities say coverage of the major candidates — including McCain — has been fair.

Overall, more than half (56%) of the public rates coverage of the campaign as
good or excellent, while 41% considers it fair or poor. The number of people giving the press favorable ratings is down slightly from last month, when 63% called coverage good or excellent. In February 1996, at a comparable point in the last presidential campaign, 61% rated coverage good or excellent.

For the most part, Americans do not feel overloaded by the amount of campaign news provided by the media. More than six-in-ten (61%) say news organizations are giving the right amount of campaign coverage, while 25% say it has been too much and 10% believe it has been too little. But Americans over age 65 are more likely to say they have been deluged by campaign news; 40% of this group says there has been too much coverage, while 50% believe the media has provided the right amount of news.

Most Americans say press coverage of McCain, Bush and Gore has been fair. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) believe coverage of McCain has been fair, against 14% who say the press has been too tough on the Arizona senator and 12% who believe it has been too easy. Despite allegations of McCain’s favorable treatment, more people believe the press has been too tough on McCain compared to either Gore (8%) or Bush (10%).

Nearly two-thirds of Americans (65%) say coverage of both the Gore and Bush campaigns has been fair. But a sizable number of Republicans (28%) believe the press has been too easy on Gore, while 54% rate coverage of the vice president’s campaign as fair. Just 14% of Democrats say that the press has been too easy on Bush, compared to 72% who say coverage has been fair.

New Interest Index

Most Americans (58%) are paying close attention to the rapid increase in gasoline prices, making it the month’s most closely followed news story. Only two other stories in the past year have captured as much public interest: the Columbine shootings at 68% and the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. at 54%. The jump in gas prices is of particular interest to women, African-Americans and those with less than a high school education.

News about the shooting of a six-year-old girl in Michigan is the second-rated story, with 40% of the public paying close attention. Interest in the shooting has been greater among women (48%) than men (30%), and among blacks (52%) than whites (37%).

The acquittal of the four New York police officers who shot and killed Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant, has drawn close attention from more than one-quarter (28%) of the public. The story registers strongest among blacks (57%) and those who live in the East (44%).

Slightly fewer people (26%) say they paid close attention to the presidential campaign this month. That is the same percentage that closely followed the campaign last month. An identical percentage reported closely following the last presidential campaign in March 1996.

One-in-four Americans (23%) say they paid very close attention to the ups and downs in the stock market this month, and 29% say they followed this news fairly closely. That is roughly similar to the percentages who have closely followed the market during volatile periods in recent years. Since November 1997, about half the public has registered at least some interest in wild market swings. Only about one-third of the public followed market turmoil in the mid-1990s.

News about Pope John Paul II’s plea for God’s forgiveness for sins committed by the Roman Catholic Church received relatively little attention. Only 16% of Americans say they followed this story very closely, although one-quarter of white, non-Hispanic Catholics report paying close attention.

News of the multi-millionaire who met and married a woman on national television and flood rescue efforts in Mozambique both attracted close interest from 10% of the public. More African-Americans say they followed the Mozambique story very closely than whites (26% to 8%, respectively). Despite receiving considerable publicity, relatively few people say they paid close attention to the TV marriage, although young people were slightly more interested in the story.

On the international front, the American public remained relatively unmoved by news of increasing tensions between China and Taiwan as Taiwan’s presidential election drew near, with a mere 9% of the American public paying very close attention. When tensions between China and Taiwan increased during Taiwan’s presidential election in 1996, 19% of the American public paid very close attention.

One-Word Descriptions for Gore and Bush