May 11, 2000

Voter Preferences Vacillate

Introduction and Summary

George W. Bush has repaired some of the damage he endured during the Republican primaries, and is now running dead-even with Al Gore. Since mid-March, Bush has regained substantial support among men and recovered modestly among independents. More voters now than six weeks ago support the Texas governor because of his stand on issues. The vice president continues to get support, albeit diminished, from women, as well as seniors and lower-income voters.

Both candidates get mixed personal image ratings, although Bush fares somewhat better than Gore and decidedly better than Bill Clinton. The Pew Research Center survey finds fewer personal criticisms of Bush than just after the GOP primaries. Men find Bush much more personally appealing than Gore. Favorability ratings also show that Americans apparently are not experiencing “Clinton nostalgia.” Indeed, the president’s favorability scores are near an all-time low. Hillary Clinton’s ratings are down as well, especially among men.

These are the findings of two separate Pew Research Center surveys of 2,186 adults, conducted April 24-May 4 and May 2-6, 2000. After trailing Gore by six percentage points in March (43%-49%), Bush has drawn into a statistical tie with the vice president (46%-45%). And while gender is playing a key role in this year’s political campaigns, it also is an important factor in many of the current policy debates. Fueled by differences of opinion between men and women, the public is divided over the wisdom of developing a national missile defense system, and gender also plays a role in opinions about the pending China trade debate. There is even a growing division of opinion over gun control that is underscored, again, by a widening gender gap.

With hundreds of thousands of mothers poised to march in favor of gun control in Washington, D.C. and cities around the nation on Mother’s Day, support for gun restrictions has declined since March, when the public by better than a two-to-one margin (66%-29%) said such restrictions were more important than the rights of gun owners. That margin has narrowed, and now 57% support gun restrictions while 38% back the rights of gun owners.

While Americans are opposed to granting China permanent normal trade status and support development of a missile defense system, there is considerable fluidity in polling numbers on both of these issues. Men and women disagree here as well. Men are more likely to favor building a missile defense system, even if it imperils nuclear arms talks with Russia. Men also think the United States should put economic interests over human rights in determining policies toward China, while women hold the opposite view. (See table.)

More Men Favor Gun Owners’ Rights

Since March, most of the movement on gun control has come among men, who now narrowly favor owners’ rights over gun control (49%-46%). Men over age 50, in particular, are much more supportive of the rights of gun owners. Fully 55% say those rights are more important than gun control, up from 37% just two months ago. Women of all age groups remain strong supporters of gun control.

The partisan gap on this issue is also substantial. Republicans narrowly choose protecting gun owners’ rights over controlling gun ownership (50%-46%). In March, GOP adherents opted for gun control by a 55%-40% margin. Democrats continue to strongly endorse gun control. Two-thirds say (67%) it’s more important than protecting owners’ rights. Independents come down on the side of gun control, but the percentage supporting owners’ rights has increased significantly (41% now, up from 28% in March).

Regardless of where they stand on the gun issue, Americans are somewhat dubious about the prospects of major gun legislation this year. Only 14% say it is very likely Congress will pass major new gun control laws this year, another 34% say it is somewhat likely. Nearly half (46%) say it is not too likely or not at all likely that legislation will be enacted.

Supporters of gun control are slightly less optimistic than opponents about the passage of new gun laws. Among those who say gun control is more important than gun owners’ rights, 47% believe it is likely there will be new laws this year, while 48% say this is unlikely. Among those who favor gun owners’ rights over gun control, 50% say there will likely be new laws, and 43% expect no new laws.

The public has not yet heard much about the Million Mom March. Only 10% have heard a lot, 42% have heard a little, and nearly half (48%) have heard nothing at all. Even among mothers, only 11% have heard a good deal about the march; half have heard at least a little. Roughly one-in-five women (21%) and slightly more mothers (28%) say they would be interested in attending the march. Not surprisingly, those “interested” women overwhelmingly support gun control. Eight-in-ten (81%) say controlling gun ownership is more important than protecting gun owners’ rights, this compares with 73% of all moms.