April 14, 2000

So Who’s Ahead?

Voters are having a hard time making up their minds about the presidential candidates and it is showing up in the divergent results of the horse race polls. Unlike four years ago, at this point in the campaign the national polls provide little insight as to who will win the White House in November. The latest soundings from the major independent pollsters show no clear pattern.

Gallup’s new national poll found the registered voters it surveyed this past weekend backing George W Bush over Al Gore by a 48% to 41% margin. But a Newsweek poll taken at the same time found its voters evenly split 44% to 44%. Polls taken by ABC/WP, NBC/WSJ and Time/CNN also found the candidates with about equal levels of support in surveys taken since the decisive Super Tuesday primaries. But, CBS and Marist surveys agreed with Gallup in giving Bush a small- but – significant, lead. A Pew Research Center survey disagreed with all of the above in showing Gore ahead 49% to 43%.

If history is any guide, these conflicting spring polls will mostly comport with one another in the all as Election Day nears. But for now their lack of congruence suggests that the American public is having trouble coming to an early judgement about the candidates. This was not so in the spring of 1996, when the leading survey organizations all had Bill Clinton ahead of Bob Dole by large and almost identical margins. The President’s lead was 9-14 percentage points (see chart). Clinton’s winning margin over Dole in November was a more modest 8 points, but these early polls pointed to the electorate’s decided preference for re-electing Clinton.

Poll results will vary more by survey organization when the public lacks certainty about the candidates. With no incumbent and with candidates who have strong appeal mostly to members of their own parties, there is little basis for voter conviction . And the primaries made a difference in this campaign. In 1999 voters were expressing a clear preference for George W Bush. Nationwide surveys consistently found the Texas Governor leading the Vice President by double digit margins. But this year Bush paid a price for his primary victories by losing support among Independents, who were strong backers of his opponent, John Mc-Cain. Al Gore on the other hand came out of the primaries stronger than he went in. He consolidated his support among Democrats by defeating challenger Bill Bradley, and at least for now has picked up the support of Independents who are no longer so high on George W Bush.

It is Independents whose preferences are the key to every election outcome and especially to this one. They have gone back and forth between Gore and Bush. Independents like Gore on most issues, but have doubts about his character and links to the Clinton scandals. While Bush is seen as more candid and likely to change the moral tone of Washington, many swing voters have come to dislike him personally, and there are worries about whether he is truly a compassionate conservative.

Despite their doubts and disappointment over Mc Cain’s departure from the race, there is little likelihood that probable Reform party candidate Pat Buchanan will make many inroads with Independent voters. Recent surveys by Pew, and Gallup found only 6% of voters saying they would choose him in a three way match up. A vote for Buchanan is not even a remote possibility for most voters. Two in three say there is no way they would consider casting a ballot for the former White House speech writer, when asked by both Gallup and Pew.

Given these candidates, and barring a material change in national conditions, there is little to suggest that either Bush or Gore will become the clear frontrunner, until much later in the game, if not until Election Day itself!

Note: This is a special poll analysis by Andrew Kohut which orginally appeared on America Online Politic’s Page (April 14-16, 2000).