September 14, 2000

Issues and Continuity Now Working for Gore

II. The Issues

Social Security, Medicare Top Priorities

So far, no single issue has dominated the campaign, reflecting the public’s varied list of policy priorities. Nearly one-quarter of voters (24%) name Social Security and Medicare as the most pressing priorities for the next president, followed closely by education (21%) and health care (19%).

There are major differences between Republicans and Democrats, as well as within the parties, over policy priorities. GOP voters are split, with nearly equal numbers naming morality, education, and Social Security and Medicare as the top priority. There is broad agreement among Democrats that Social Security and Medicare should be the next president’s first order of business, followed by health care and education. Independents name the same top three priorities as Democrats, but are more closely divided.

Morality is the leading priority for Staunch Conservatives, while Populist Republicans rate morality and Social Security and Medicare as the leading priorities. For Moderate Republicans, the top issues are Social Security and Medicare, education and morality. Significantly, the Republican-oriented groups are deeply split over the importance of taxes, a major focus of Bush’s campaign. One-in-five Staunch Conservatives identify taxes as the top priority, compared to just 11% of Populists and 10% of Moderates.

Among Democratic-oriented groups, New Democrats, the Partisan Poor and Social Conservatives rate Social Security and Medicare as the leading priorities, but Liberals regard education and health care as far more important. The two independent groups are split as well: Education is the top priority for the New Prosperity Independents, while Disaffecteds name Social Security and Medicare first, followed closely by education.

Nine-in-Ten Support Drug Benefit

While voters generally believe Gore is better able to handle major issues than Bush, some of the GOP’s policy positions — including ending the inheritance tax and allowing younger workers to invest some payroll taxes in private retirement accounts — win broad backing from members of both parties.

But by far the most popular campaign initiative is the plan to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. Until recently, when Bush outlined his prescription drug proposal, that issue had been dominated by the vice president. While the candidates’ plans on this issue differ greatly, the overall objective wins almost universal support: nine-in-ten voters favor adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

Democrats overwhelmingly support the prescription drug benefit (95% in favor), and nearly two-thirds (64%) strongly favor that idea. More than eight-in-ten Republicans (84%) also endorse the prescription drug benefit, while almost half are strong supporters. In addition, more than nine-in-ten independents support the proposal, with 58% of independents strongly in favor of the idea.

Support for the prescription drug benefit cuts across all age groups. But slightly fewer of those under age 30 strongly favor the idea, compared to those over age 30. More women than men support having Medicare pay for prescriptions, and 63% of women strongly support the proposal compared to about half of men.

There also is a consensus, though not quite as large, in favor of eliminating the inheritance tax. Seven-in-ten voters favor ending the tax, which has been a signature issue for the GOP. Not surprisingly, eight-in-ten Republicans support ending the tax — more than half strongly favor the idea. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats agree, despite Clinton’s veto of a GOP bill to eliminate the tax. However, there is less intensity of support among Democrats, with just one-third strongly in favor of scrapping the tax.

Similarly, about 70% of voters support a proposal, which has been actively promoted by Bush, to let younger workers invest some of their payroll taxes in private accounts. While 80% of Republicans support this idea, about six-in-ten Democrats also back that plan, as well as 72% of independents.

The political divide on this question may be less important than the generation gap: More than eight-in-ten of those under age 50 support private retirement accounts, compared to 64% of those 50-64 and just 51% of senior citizens.

Minorities Support Vouchers

The electorate is more evenly divided over providing vouchers to low- and middle-income families, a key part of Bush’s educational plan. Still, voters favor vouchers, 53%-44%, and that proposal wins strong backing from two key Democratic constituencies.

Overall, about as many Democrats support vouchers (48%), as oppose them (49%). But African-Americans and Hispanics support vouchers by wide margins. Blacks back the program by almost the same margin as Staunch Conservatives (60%-35%). Hispanics favor educational vouchers 70%-26%. A solid majority of all voters under age 50 back vouchers (and 66% of those age 18-29 favor them), but support drops off among those over 50. Just four-in-ten of those age 65 and over favor the program.

Arising largely from the strong minority backing for vouchers, there are significant differences among the Democratic-leaning typology groups. The Partisan Poor, which includes a large number of blacks and Hispanics, support vouchers 57%-40%. New Democrats also support them, 50% to 45%. But Social Conservatives and Liberals reject vouchers by fairly substantial margins.

On defense spending, by contrast, members of the two parties occupy more familiar positions. A majority of Republicans (52%) want to boost defense spending, while 37% support maintaining the budget at its current level and 8% favor cutting defense. Just one-in-five Democratic voters want to increase spending, while 59% favor keeping it at the current level, and 16% support reductions.

Independents are closer to the Democrats on this issue — 30% for increased spending, 50% for no change, and 17% for reducing the Pentagon’s budget. Overall, about half of all voters (48%) want to maintain the defense budget at its current level, while one-third favor an increase and 14% want to cut back military spending.

Republicans Divide Over Economics, HMO’s

Voters are split over how they want the federal budget surplus divided. But when it comes to tax policy, a solid majority rejects an across-the-board tax cut, which is an important component of Bush’s economic plan. Indeed, Bush is having difficulty selling many members of his own party on the wisdom of that approach.

A plurality of voters (38%) favor using the budget surplus to shore up Social Security and Medicare, but one-quarter would boost spending for domestic programs. Democrats are relatively unified: nearly half (45%) say the surplus should go to the entitlement programs and 31% favor expanded funding for domestic programs. Republicans agree that Social Security and Medicare are the top surplus priority (33% in favor), while one-quarter would use any extra funds for tax cuts. Independents also want to shore up Social Security and Medicare (33% favoring that approach), and 27% favor using the surplus to pay down the national debt.

Staunch Conservatives, alone among GOP-oriented groups, favor using the surplus to pay for tax cuts. More than one-third in this group back tax cuts, compared to 26% who want to pay down the national debt and 25% who would devote additional money to the retirement programs. By wide margins, Moderate and Populist Republicans agree with most Democrats that the surplus should be devoted to Social Security and Medicare.

Republicans are also divided over the composition of possible tax cuts. Overall, voters much prefer targeted tax cuts aimed at lower- and middle-income families — which Gore has proposed — to an across-the-board reduction (58% to 40%). Two-thirds of Democrats and more than six-in-ten independents (62%) support targeted cuts. A narrow majority of Republicans (53%) favor an across-the-board tax cut, while a sizable minority (45%) support targeted cuts.

Staunch Conservatives favor the across-the-board reduction by a two-to-one margin (66%-33%), while Populist Republicans support targeted cuts (56%-41%) and Moderates are divided over the two approaches (51% for targeted cuts vs. 49% for an across-the-board reduction). By contrast, strong majorities in all four Democratic-oriented groups back targeted cuts. Even New Democrats, who show the most support for across-the-board reductions, favor targeted cuts (61%-37%).

Proposed national standards for HMO’s remain popular with most voters, with nearly six-in-ten (58%) endorsing such standards. Independents and Democrats support them by wide margins. But again, GOP voters are split over this question: 45% favor the standards while 48% believe they represent too much government involvement in health care.

Narrow majorities of Populist and Moderate Republicans (55% and 53% respectively) back the HMO standards, while Staunch Conservatives reject them by better than two-to-one (65%-30%). Solid majorities in all four Democratic-oriented groups back the national standards.

Candidates Hitting Right Issues

The campaign’s overall themes are connecting with most voters. Fully seven-in-ten say Gore and Bush are talking about the issues that are important to them, while 22% disagree. In October 1996, just 59% felt the candidates were addressing the important issues.

Still, 32% of voters say the two men take similar positions on issues, while 56% see clear differences between Gore and Bush. In June, just 51% of voters said they perceived clear differences between the candidates. Not surprisingly, there is a large gap on this question between those who have followed the campaign closely, and those who haven’t. More than six-in-ten voters (64%) who have closely tracked campaign news perceive significant differences in the issue stances of the candidates; less than half (45%) of those who have followed the election only sporadically or not at all agree.