July 27, 2000

Voters Unmoved By Media Characterizations of Bush and Gore

Other Important Findings and Analyses

Might-Miss TV?

Just one-in-ten Americans (13%) plan to watch all or most of the television coverage of the GOP convention, while another 28% say they’ll watch some of it. Older Americans are both more interested in the convention and more apt to watch the television coverage.

But even among Republicans, there is scant interest in the proceedings in Philadelphia. Less than half of Republicans (47%) say they are interested in the convention, and GOP partisans are no more likely than Democrats to say they’ll tune into the TV coverage.

Reflecting their overall lack of enthusiasm about the convention, Americans express little interest in specific events that will take place. The GOP platform may be the biggest draw; 23% of the public is very interested in learning about the party’s platform, while another 35% is fairly interested. In 1992, there was considerably more interest in learning about the Democratic Party’s platform — 38% were very interested. Roughly a quarter of the public (23%) is very interested in watching Bush’s acceptance speech, about the same level of interest expressed in Clinton’s 1992 speech. A similar number are interested in hearing Bush’s running mate speak.

The public takes little interest in hearing what John McCain has to say at the convention. Only 15% say they’re very interested in hearing McCain’s speech. Independents, many of whom formed the core of the Arizona senator’s support, are among the least interested. Just one-in-ten Americans are very interested in Laura Bush’s address to the delegates.

Horse Race Still Close

Bush and Gore remain neck-and-neck in the presidential contest. In a two-way match-up, 48% of registered voters favor Bush, 46% support or lean toward Gore, with 6% undecided. This compares to a 46%-45% Gore edge in mid-June, and a 46%-45% Bush advantage in May. The poll shows Bush with a slight lead over Gore among independents (52% to 41%).

A consistently large gender gap underlies these figures. Men prefer Bush 54% to 40%, while Gore leads among women 52% to 42%. Taking race and gender into account, Bush is the overwhelming favorite of white men, who back the Texas governor 59% to 36%, while white women are evenly split between Bush and Gore (47% each). As is typically the case, the GOP candidate’s advantage among white men is counterbalanced by the support the vice president receives from non-whites, although Bush is currently polling a respectable 23% among non-white registered voters.

Bush’s lead among whites is strongest among evangelical Protestants, where he holds greater than a two-to-one advantage (65% to 30%) over Gore. By comparison, his lead among white mainline Protestants (50% to 43%) and white Catholics (50% to 45%) is not significant.

In a four-way race, Bush and Gore remain virtually tied (42% Bush vs. 41% Gore) while Ralph Nader attracts the support of 6% of registered voters, and another 2% support Buchanan. Nader’s appeal is stronger among independents (10%) and college graduates (9%). Nader is also attracting 10% of voters who are union members or have a spouse who is a union member, compared to only 5% in non-union households.

Cheney’s experience as defense secretary and his long career as a congressman may turn out to be an advantage for Bush. Overall, 38% of respondents say they would be more likely to vote for Bush if he named a running mate with extensive foreign policy experience, and 30% say a vice-presidential candidate with past experience in Washington D.C. might make them more likely to vote for Bush. By comparison, only 19% of respondents, (14% of men and 23% of women) say choosing a woman would make the ticket more appealing.

Cheney’s lengthy resume serves Bush well among Republicans, and it may even help him with independents. Fully 46% of Republicans and 42% of independents say they would be more likely to vote for Bush if his nominee has foreign policy experience, compared to only 30% of Democrats. Republicans and independents are also more supportive of a candidate with past government experience than are Democrats.

Blurry Candidate Images

In this highly competitive presidential race, the images of the candidates remain largely unformed. Only one-in-four Americans (26%) say they know a lot about what Gore stands for, and even fewer (23%) know a lot about Bush. Democrats are no more likely than Republicans to say they know a lot about the vice president, while GOP loyalists are nearly twice as likely as Democrats to have a good sense of Bush (34% vs. 18%).

When asked specifically what comes to mind when they think about each candidate, Americans volunteer mostly neutral terms and descriptions. The environment tops the list of what Gore stands for. In addition, he is known most for his ties to the Clinton administration, his honesty, his stance on abortion and for being a Democrat. When asked what comes to mind about Bush, the top response is his honesty and integrity. Bush is also identified as being just like his father and being a conservative, as well as for his stands on the death penalty and taxes.

Several of the most prominent themes that have emerged over the course of the campaign have yet to penetrate the public’s collective consciousness. The poll tested six character themes which have been a common focus of the news media during the months leading up to the party conventions. These same themes were the basis for the content analysis conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Committee of Concerned Journalists. That study suggests that while Bush appears to be winning the battle for control of the message, the message may be falling on deaf ears.

Respondents in the Pew poll were asked to link either Bush or Gore to each of the six statements or perceptions. The only one which has clearly registered with most voters is the idea that Bush is the candidate who has relied on family connections to get ahead. More than half of the public associated the Texas governor with this trait.

Bush’s efforts to reach out beyond the traditional Republican base are not widely acknowledged. In fact, the public is more likely to associate Gore with this theme than Bush. Roughly one-third (32%) chose Gore when asked which candidate “reaches out to all kinds of voters, not just members of his own party,” while 28% picked Bush. Very few Americans accept the notion that Bush “is not a serious person.” Only 19% say this phrase better describes Bush, 21% choose Gore, and fully 44% say this doesn’t accurately describe either candidate.

Gore is seen, more than Bush, as the candidate who is “experienced and knows a lot about the issues.” However, the difference is not overwhelming: 38% choose Gore, while 25% point to Bush. Gore is also more likely to be perceived as the candidate who “says what’s popular rather than what he really believes” (36% vs. 25% Bush) and the one who “has been involved in scandals in the past” (26% vs. 18% Bush). Again, the gaps are not particularly wide.

Not surprisingly, perceptions of the candidates are shaped in large part by partisanship. Republicans are much more likely to pin negative themes to Gore than are Democrats. At the same time, they are less willing to accept negative perceptions of Bush. The same can be said of the Democrats. For example, when asked to identify the candidate who has relied on family connections to get ahead, 65% of Democrats point to Bush, compared to only 42% of Republicans. Similarly, 31% of Democrats choose Bush as the less serious person, compared to only 8% of Republicans. Democrats are much less likely than Republicans to give Bush credit for reaching out to all kinds of voters. In fact, by a margin of 53%-11% they say that description fits Gore best. Republicans say it applies to Bush (46% vs. only 15% who point to the vice president).

Republicans overwhelmingly choose Gore as the candidate who says what’s popular rather than what he really believes (63%). Only 17% of Democrats perceive Gore in this way. Republicans are also more apt to perceive Gore as scandal-tainted (42%, vs. 14% of Democrats).

In spite of his efforts, Bush is not seen by the public as a different kind of Republican. Only 21% of Americans say Bush has different views than traditional GOP leaders; fully 62% think his views are similar to those of traditional party leaders. The idea that Bush represents something different from the traditional GOP is largely rejected by Republicans, Democrats and independents alike.

Interestingly, non-whites are slightly more likely than whites to see Bush as a new kind of Republican (29% vs. 19%). But the poll suggests that this perception, though not widely held at this point, could be a plus for Bush in the general election. Among those who do see him as a different kind of Republican, Bush leads Gore by a 58%-38% margin.

Gore’s Possible Vulnerabilities

While these campaign themes have not necessarily registered with the public, they have the potential to be quite potent if and when they do sink in. Overall, Gore’s biggest potential weaknesses are that he panders and stretches the truth.

When asked how they would react if they heard that Gore tends to say what’s popular rather than what he really believes, or that he stretches the truth, roughly half of the public says hearing this would make them less likely to vote for the vice president. In each case, majorities of independents say these issues might move them away from Gore.

Similarly, about four-in-ten Americans say hearing that Gore took part in unethical fund- raising practices during the 1996 presidential campaign, or that Gore has been part of a scandal-ridden Clinton administration would make them less inclined to vote for him for president.

Among those statements tested in the poll, the most potentially positive one for Gore is that he is experienced and has command of the issues. Fully half of the public says hearing this about Gore would make them more likely to vote for him. One-third say hearing this wouldn’t impact their vote choice one way or another. On balance, Gore’s promise to carry on Clinton’s successful economic policies is also a potentially positive theme. Roughly four-in-ten (43%) Americans say hearing this would make them more likely to vote for Gore. One-in-five say this would actually make them less likely to vote for him, and 32% say it wouldn’t make a difference.

Gore’s permissive stand on abortion appears to have a mixed impact on voters: 36% say hearing about this would make them more likely to vote for Gore, 27% say less likely, and 34% say this wouldn’t make a difference. Labeling Gore as a “Washington insider” is not likely to have much of an impact. Fully 58% say hearing Gore described this way wouldn’t affect their vote for president; 32% say this would make them less likely to vote for him, only 7% say more likely.

Another Education President?

The most common negative themes associated with Bush’s candidacy seem less threatening than those linked to Gore, especially among independents. At the same time, certain positive Bush messages have the potential to draw voters. Bush’s biggest negative is the notion that he doesn’t know enough about the issues to be president. Roughly four-in-ten (42%) say hearing this would make them less likely to vote for Bush. Nonetheless, slightly more (47%) say this wouldn’t affect their vote.

Other common criticisms of Bush, that he has relied on family connections to get ahead and that he has too many ties to the right-wing of the Republican Party, appear to have less potential sting. In each case, a narrow majority of voters say hearing about these issues wouldn’t have an impact on their vote.

Bush’s greatest potential strength remains his record on education. Fully 53% of Americans say hearing that Bush has improved the educational system in Texas would make them more likely to vote for him. Even 41% of Democrats say this might lead them to vote for Bush. Bush’s pledge to cut taxes could also be, on balance, a plus for his campaign. Just under half of the public (47%) says hearing about this would make them more likely to vote for Bush, 38% say this wouldn’t make a difference in their vote, and 12% say it would actually make them less likely to vote for Bush.

Hearing that he will bring morality and ethics back to the White House is also a potentially positive theme for Bush, as is the idea that Bush has made an effort to reach out to minorities. In each case, 43% of Americans say hearing this would make them more likely to vote for Bush. However, four-in-ten say neither of these things would impact on their vote.

Bush’s position on gun control and his strong support for the death penalty appear to have a mixed effect on voters. Learning that Bush mostly opposes stronger gun control measures would be a wash in terms of his support — one-third of the public would be more likely to vote for him and almost as many (31%) would be less likely. A plurality of Americans (46%) say hearing that, under Bush, Texas has used the death penalty more than any other state wouldn’t affect their vote. Roughly a quarter say this would make them more likely to vote for him, and an equal percentage say this would make them less likely.

Middling Grades for Congress

Democrats continue to hold a slight edge in the battle for control of the House. But the Democrats’ 47%-43% lead, with 10% undecided, is not statistically significant. The margin has barely budged since February, when Democrats held a 47%-44% advantage.

Overall, Americans give the Republican Congress so-so marks for performance, although they are far less satisfied with the job done by its leaders. Just 21% of Americans say this Congress has accomplished more than its predecessors, while 55% say it has accomplished the same amount and 15% believe it has achieved less. Still, that represents a modest improvement since last August, when only 15% of respondents said Congress had accomplished more than in recent years.

In the same vein, a solid majority of Americans (54%) say that lawmakers have been bickering more than usual, while just 21% believe they have been relatively cooperative. But again, that marks improvement from August 1999 when — with memories of the impeachment battle still fresh — two-thirds of Americans (68%) said Congress was less harmonious.

Interestingly, there are only small partisan differences of opinion over what this Congress has accomplished and whether lawmakers are working well together. One-quarter of Democrats and virtually the same number of Republicans (23%) say this Congress has accomplished more than its predecessors; fewer independents (17%) agree. In addition, majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents agree that lawmakers have been bickering more this year (60%, 56% and 53%, respectively).

The Other Gender Gap

While the gender gap in the presidential race has drawn considerable attention, there is an equally formidable divide in the generic congressional measure. Among registered voters, a majority of women (51%) currently support the Democratic candidate in their district, while 37% support the Republican candidate. Among men, the GOP holds a nine-point advantage (51%-42%).

Among women age 50 and over, the partisan gap is even larger. Fully 54% of voters in this group prefer the Democratic candidate for Congress, compared to just 34% who support the GOP candidate. Among men, the GOP’s biggest edge comes from those age 30-49, who back the Republican candidate by a 16-point margin (55%-39%).

Congressional Control: Does it Matter?

For all of its importance, the battle for control of Congress is not weighing heavily on the minds of most voters. Half (49%) say the question of which party controls Congress will not be a factor in their votes this fall, while 46% say that issue will affect their decisions when they go to the polls.

In addition, a plurality of Americans (41%) believe it does not matter whether Congress and the White House are controlled by different parties or the same party. Those who say it does matter are split, with 27% preferring divided government and 25% holding the view that the government works best when the president’s party also holds a majority in Congress.

At this stage, Democrats and Republicans are equally motivated by the struggle for Congress. A slim majority of Democratic voters (52%) say the question of control of Capitol Hill will be a factor for them this fall, as do 49% of Republicans. Just 33% of independents share this view.

Pluralities of independents (44%), Democrats (40%) and Republicans (36%) say it is not that important whether or not the two major parties share power. Among those who think the issue matters, independents favor divided government over single-party rule (31%-20%), Democrats are split (27%-27%), and Republicans prefer that one party control the White House and Congress (31%-24%).

For older voters, particularly those age 65 and over, the question of which party controls Congress is important. Fully six-in-ten senior citizens say their votes will be affected by this issue, compared to 45% of registered voters age 50-64, 41% of those 30-49, and 39% of the under-30 group. In addition, more senior citizens than younger Americans prefer that one party control the executive and legislative branches of government; among those 65 and over, 34% back single-party government while 32% say it doesn’t matter and 23% opt for divided government. Among Americans under age 50, the prevailing view is that this issue doesn’t matter.

All Politics Are Local

With no single issue dominating this year’s campaigns, and voters not yet fully engaged in the struggle for control of Congress, it is not surprising that they attach greater significance to local issues and a congressional candidate’s character and experience than to national issues. Four-in-ten voters say state and local issues will be the biggest factor in their decisions, and 32% say the candidate’s background ranks as the most important consideration.

National issues are seen as less important, with just 18% rating them as the biggest factor in determining how they will vote. And a candidate’s political party is seen as the biggest factor by just 6% of voters.

Cautious Optimism on Gene Breakthrough

While Americans recognize that there are risks associated with genetic research and the mapping of the human genome, they remain largely positive about the impact these scientific discoveries will have on their lives. More specifically, people are optimistic about the possibility of medical advances resulting from genetic research, even as a significant number express concern over possible discrimination or loss of privacy as a result of gene mapping.

When asked whether the mapping of the human genetic code will be mostly a good thing for society or whether there are some serious risks involved, fully six-in-ten (61%) cite the risks. Still, 45% think the effect of genetic research on their lives will be mostly positive, while only 16% expect mostly negative effects. Another 27% think the research is unlikely to impact them at all.

Similarly, optimism about medical advances based on genetic research is broader than worries about the misuse of genetic information. Eight-in-ten of those who had heard about possible medical advances stemming from genetic mapping were very or somewhat optimistic about the prospect. By comparison, only 56% of those who had heard about genetic information leading to discrimination or loss of privacy said they were worried about such outcomes.

Concerns about the possible dangers of genetic research are stronger among women, 68% of whom see some serious risks for society, compared to only 53% of men. Fully 52% of men say the effect of genetic research on their own lives will be mostly positive, while only 11% see the negatives outweighing the positives. By comparison, only 38% of women see genetic research having a positive effect on their lives, while 21% think the effect will be mostly negative.

Those with higher levels of education also tend to be more optimistic about the outcome of genetic research. Fully 60% of college graduates think the mapping of the genetic code will have a positive effect on them and their families, compared to only 35% of those with a high school degree or less.

News Interest Index

The completion of the human genome project attracted only moderate public interest. Just 16% of Americans say they followed news stories about scientists discovering how to map the human genetic code very closely, and 34% say they paid virtually no attention to the story at all.

But it is clear that whether or not people paid attention to the news had a bearing on their attitudes about the subject. Those who followed news about the scientific discoveries are far more optimistic about both the social and personal impact of the research than those who paid little or no attention, regardless of their age, education or gender. Fully 49% of those who followed the story very closely believe the research will mostly be a good thing for our society, compared to only 19% of those who did not follow the story.

Among this month’s top news stories was the video showing Philadelphia police kicking and beating a carjacking suspect. Slightly more than one-in-five Americans (22%) followed the story very closely. By contrast, nearly half (46%) paid close attention to the videotape of the beating of Rodney King in March 1991. More blacks than whites paid close attention to the Philadelphia police incident (42% vs. 19%).

News about presidential candidates was followed very closely by 21% of the public. Nearly four-in-ten senior citizens (37%) paid close attention to the campaign, compared to just 11% of those age 18-29. Equal percentages of Republicans and Democrats (24%) closely followed election news, compared to only 16% of independents.

Foreign news stories once again proved to be of limited interest to the public. News about the AIDS epidemic in Africa was followed by 19% of the public. Nearly three-in-ten African-Americans (29%) paid close attention to this story. The Middle East peace summit at Camp David was followed very closely by 15% of the public, and just 7% paid close attention to the Mexican election. Still, seven-in-ten (71%) of those who followed the Mexican election very closely believe that nation will become more democratic.

Two major Supreme Court rulings in the past month garnered about the same level of attention. The Court’s ruling allowing the Boy Scouts to fire gay troop leaders was followed closely by 16% of the public, while 15% closely followed news of the Court overturning a Nebraska law banning late-term abortions.

Cite this publication: “Voters Unmoved By Media Characterizations of Bush and Gore.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (July 27, 2000) http://www.people-press.org/2000/07/27/voters-unmoved-by-media-characterizations-of-bush-and-gore/, accessed on July 22, 2014.