September 14, 2000

Issues and Continuity Now Working for Gore

III. Rating the Candidates and the Parties

Gore’s Issues Edge

Gore is seen as the candidate who would do the best job on the issues that matter most to Americans — Social Security and Medicare, education and health care. Nearly half of voters (49%) say Gore would be most capable of keeping Social Security and Medicare financially sound, while 36% choose Bush. Similarly, when asked who could best improve the nation’s health care system, 51% choose Gore while 32% choose Bush. Independents clearly favor Gore on each of these issues.

The gap is smaller on education, though Gore still leads. Bush’s continued focus on education has left this traditionally Democratic issue somewhat up for grabs. Today, 45% of voters say Gore could do the best job of improving education, 39% choose Bush.

Gore has pulled ahead of Bush as the candidate best able to keep the economy strong. In June, Gore was barely ahead of Bush on this issue (41% vs. 38%, respectively). Now Gore clearly leads — 46%-38%. Gore’s strength on this issue can be attributed mostly to his success in shoring up his own party base. In June, only 68% of Democrats said Gore was the candidate best able to keep the economy going strong; now, fully 81% of Democratic loyalists choose Gore. Independents continue to choose Gore over Bush on this issue (45% vs. 33%), while Republicans side with Bush.

Not only has Gore made progress on the issue of the economy, he has gained ground on taxes — long seen as a GOP strong suit. In June, most voters said Bush would do the best job of dealing with taxes (41% vs. 34% for Gore). After hammering away at Bush’s tax proposal, Gore now has parity with the Texas governor on this issue (41%-41%). In part, that may reflect the public’s preference for Gore’s approach of targeted tax cuts rather than Bush’s across-the-board proposal.

Within the Republican Party there are significant schisms on these top-tier issues. Less affluent Populist Republicans break with the better off Staunch Conservatives over which candidate has the better approach to the economy, Social Security and Medicare and health care. While the Populists favor Bush on each issue, a significant minority either opt for Gore or remain undecided. For example, when asked which candidate would do the better job keeping Social Security and Medicare financially sound, 25% of Populist Republicans choose Gore, while only 53% choose Bush. Staunch Conservatives opt for Bush over Gore 75%-5%. In general the Democratic groups are much more united behind Gore on these policy issues.

Overall, Bush maintains a modest lead on defense: 46% of voters say he would do the best job making wise decisions about the nation’s defense policy, 40% choose Gore. However, by a narrow margin, Gore is seen as the candidate who would do the best job representing voters’ views on America’s role in world affairs (44% vs. 39% for Bush).

The candidates continue to run even on the issues of gun control and protecting families. Roughly one-in-four voters (39%) say Bush would do the best job of representing their views on gun control, 37% choose Gore. Similarly, voters divide evenly over which candidate would be best able to protect and strengthen families: 42% choose Gore, 39% say Bush.

Gore maintains a strong lead over Bush on the environment and looking out for the interests of minorities. Fully 58% of voters say Gore would do the best job protecting the environment, only 24% choose Bush. More than half (52%) say Gore is best qualified to improve conditions for minority groups, while 28% choose Bush. Finally, Gore has a small edge over Bush as the candidate who best represents voters’ views about abortion — 38%-34%.

Bush Seen as Stronger Leader

In spite of all Gore’s advantages on the issues, Bush remains the stronger leader in the voters’ eyes. By a margin of 44%-to-38%, voters choose Bush over Gore as a strong leader. The gap in perceptions about leadership is most pronounced among men, especially white men. By a nearly two-to-one margin, white men choose Bush over Gore as a strong leader (53% vs. 27%). White women divide much more evenly — favoring Bush over Gore 44%-37%. Independents, who are split in their presidential preference, give Bush the edge over Gore on leadership by a margin of 41%-32%.

In addition, Bush is seen as the candidate most willing to take a stand, even if it’s unpopular, though Gore has narrowed the gap a bit in recent months. Today, 45% of voters say Bush is the candidate who’s most likely to take unpopular stands, vs. 37% who choose Gore. In June, Bush led Gore on this measure by a slightly wider 46%-32%.

Bush trails Gore badly when it comes to his knowledge of the issues. More than half of the voters polled (54%) say Gore, rather than Bush, is experienced and knows a lot about the issues, only 28% choose Bush. Gore’s advantage in this regard has increased from a narrower 39%-25% margin in June. Gore is also the favorite when voters are asked which candidate comes closest to their opinions on the issues that matter most to them (48% choose Gore, 39% Bush). Furthermore, Gore is more often seen by voters as the candidate who cares about people like them (47% vs. 31% for Bush).

The divisions within the Republican Party on key policy issues are also apparent on several personal characteristics. Again, Populist Republicans express less enthusiasm for Bush, especially when compared with Staunch Conservatives. Populist Republicans are less likely than Staunch Conservatives to choose Bush over Gore as the candidate who would use good judgment in a crisis (66% among Populists vs. 80% among Staunch Conservatives), the more personally likable candidate (60% vs. 73%), or the more honest and truthful of the two (58% vs. 77%).

The biggest gaps between these two Republican-leaning groups emerge when they are asked which candidate cares the most about people like them (72% of Staunch Conservatives choose Bush compared to only 50% of Populist Republicans) and which candidate comes closest to their views on the issues (86% of Staunch Conservatives say Bush vs. 67% of Populists).

Two Sides of Swing Voters

An analysis of several of the important swing groups in the electorate shows that Bush has some real strengths, while Gore is particularly vulnerable in the area of character and personal qualities. There is much more consensus among swing groups about Gore’s strength on the issues. Older men, who now break slightly for Gore in the horse race, find Bush more personally likable and more honest, and they see Gore as a typical politician.

Similarly, parents, who now divide evenly between the two major party candidates in the presidential contest, think Bush is more honest than Gore, would use better judgment in a crisis and would be better able to get things done. Parents give Bush a slight edge in terms of being the candidate who comes closest to their views on the important issues.

But when it comes to voters’ top policy priorities, Gore doesn’t face the same problems with these important swing groups. Older men, independents and parents all agree that Gore could do the best job dealing with entitlements and health care. Bush does have some potential to make inroads with certain swing groups on taxes, guns and family values. However, at this point these are clearly second-tier issues. Perhaps more importantly, Gore may have some vulnerability on education. Parents are evenly divided over which candidate could do a better job on this crucial issue.

Conventions Define the Candidates

In terms of defining the candidates themselves, many of the central messages of the conventions seem to have resonated with the public. A majority of voters (56%) say they now like Gore personally more than they did earlier in the year. A majority also thinks his wife, Tipper Gore, is very impressive. And, by a margin of 47%-29%, voters say they “really like” Joe Lieberman.

Women are slightly more likely than men to say they have come to like Gore better (61% vs. 51%). Older voters are among the most likely to have an improved opinion about Gore; fully 63% say they like the vice president more now than they did earlier in the year. On balance, independents agree that they like Gore better now (52% vs. 39% who disagree with this statement). Nearly half (48%) of those who support Bush moderately, and one-third of Republicans say they too have come to like Gore more over time.

Majorities in nearly every major demographic group agree that they have a lot of confidence in Gore’s ability to deal with difficult issues, even 49% of white men hold this view. Independents agree with this statement by a margin of 56%-41%.

In addition to shoring up his own party base, Gore’s convention make-over may have helped him make some inroads with Moderate Republicans, 45% of whom say they like Gore more now than they did previously. Roughly four-in-ten Moderate Republicans (42%) say they really like Lieberman and 51% are impressed with Tipper Gore. One-third (32%) say they’re confident in Gore’s ability to deal with difficult issues.

Bush, who has had a more positive personal image throughout the campaign, has had less success recently when it comes to making himself more likable. Voters are divided as to whether or not they like Bush more now than they did earlier in the year: 46% say yes, 46% say no. Bush is seen, on balance, as more of a real person than a politician (53% agree with this statement.) Like Tipper Gore, Laura Bush is an asset to her husband. By a margin of 48%-30%, voters say they find her very impressive.

Doubts about Bush’s Abilities

Bush has not completely succeeded in persuading voters of the notion that he is up to the job of president. Some 46% of voters agree that Bush may not be up to the job, while 48% disagree.

Bush has problems even among some conservative-leaning typology groups. Three-in-ten Populist Republicans (31%) say their nominee may not be up to the job, and nearly one-in-five Moderate Republicans agree. Furthermore, this perception is fairly widespread among independents (47%). Those who agree that Bush may not be up to job prefer Gore for president by an overwhelming margin (76% vs. 13%).

Gore, on the other hand, is still seen by a significant minority of voters as overly partisan. Nearly four-in-ten say Gore is too partisan and too divisive, 48% disagree. Men are more likely to hold this view of Gore than are women (46% vs. 33%). More than a quarter of Socially Conservative Democrats perceive Gore this way, as do nearly half of New Prosperity Independents and Dissaffecteds.

Clinton’s Impact Lessened

Clinton fatigue, which first surfaced more than a year ago, has not diminished. In fact, more voters today completely agree with the statement “I am tired of all the problems associated with the Clinton administration,” than did a year ago (48% vs. 36% in August 1999).

Overall, nearly three-quarters of voters have, to some degree, tired of the Clinton administration. However, this widespread sentiment is having less of an impact on the presidential race than it did a year ago. Today, among those who say they’re tired of the Clinton administration, 51% say they’ll vote for Bush, 38% will vote for Gore. Last year at this time, those who felt Clinton fatigue were backing Bush by a much wider margin (63%-32%). In addition, those who say they’re not tired of Clinton are now voting for Gore in higher numbers — 76% vs. 67% a year ago.

Clinton fatigue is prevalent among all major demographic groups. Even 56% of Democrats say they have grown weary of Clinton, and fully 78% of independents agree. The percent of voters who wish Clinton could run for a third term has remained steady since last year. Just one-quarter wish Clinton could run again, while seven-in-ten disagree.

The Parties’ Changing Images?

The parties were only partially successful in conveying their central messages at this summer’s nominating conventions. Voters are now divided as to whether or not the Republican Party has become more compassionate and caring: 47% agree the party has changed in this way; 44% say it hasn’t. A strong majority of Republicans (71%) think the party has become more compassionate, while Democrats and independents are less convinced (34% and 40%, respectively).

Among all voters, those who agree that the Republican Party has changed have a much more positive view of the party more generally: nearly three-quarters have a favorable opinion of the party, compared to only 33% of those who say the party hasn’t gotten more compassionate. Interestingly, those who think the GOP has become more compassionate are much more likely than those who disagree to say that the party is doing a good job standing up for its traditional positions (60% vs. 34%).

While the Republican Party’s image may be changing, most voters think that Bush — the candidate who coined the phrase “compassionate conservative” — is actually more conservative than he lets on. Fully 58% hold this view; 28% disagree. A majority of Republicans (55%) think Bush is more conservative than he lets on. Liberal Democrats are the most cynical in this regard — fully 77% say Bush isn’t showing his true colors.

While many voters believe the GOP is changing, more think that it’s the Democrats who really care about ordinary people. More than half of voters (52%) say the Democrats care more than Republicans, 41% disagree.Very few Republicans see the Democrats as more caring (21%); however, nearly half of independents hold this view.

In the contest over images, Gore is widely perceived as being more liberal than he lets on. Overall, 58% of voters hold this view; 27% disagree. Even a majority of Democrats say Gore is a liberal deep down. Fully seven-in-ten Republicans feel this way. Those who hold this view about Gore narrowly prefer Bush in the presidential horse race — 49%-44%.