Bush Gains on Personal Qualities
Other Important Findings and Analyses
Gender Divide Among Issue Voters
Issues continue to drive voter preferences, as strong pluralities of both Gore and Bush voters say what they like most about their candidates are their stands on issues. Experience is also a draw for Gore voters, while roughly three-in-ten Bush supporters say they like the governor because of his personality and leadership abilities.
Gore’s strongest issues are education, Social Security, health care, abortion and the environment. Voters who say they like Gore because of his policy positions named these issues most often when asked for specifics. Bush voters cite abortion, taxes, education, Social Security and the military.
Major differences between men and women emerge as to which issues matter most, even among those who agree on a candidate. Gender differences are more striking within the Bush camp. For women who support Bush because of his issue positions, abortion rates as most important, followed by education, Social Security, taxes and health care. For men who support Bush for his issue positions, the top priorities are taxes, abortion, gun control, the size of government and the military. Male and female Gore voters are in more agreement over which issues matter most, though women place much more emphasis on education than men.
Gore’s Personality Woes
Personality remains a significant liability for Gore. While a plurality of Bush voters (43%) say what they like least about Gore is his position on issues, nearly three-in-ten point to the vice president’s personality. The percentage of Bush supporters citing Gore’s personality as his biggest negative spiked up in early October, after the first presidential debate, and has remained at that level ever since.
Bush’s personality is also a weakness, though less so than Gore’s. One-in-five Gore voters say his personality is what they like least about the governor. However, issue positions dominate here as well, with 37% saying Bush’s stand on issues turns them off most.
Gore’s weakness in terms of personal qualities is evident on several fronts. Swing voters were asked why they were unsure about voting for Gore and Bush. Gore’s reputation for exaggerating, as well as general complaints about his personality top the list (14% cite one or more of these factors). Many swing voters also mention Gore’s association with Clinton as potential problem. Another top response is that Gore flip-flops on issues. Overall, concerns about Gore’s his personality overwhelm policy concerns, by a margin of 37%-26%.
Swing voters’ biggest reservations about Bush center on his experience, intelligence and ability to handle the job of president. Some 17% of swing voters pointed to these types of factors. In addition, many swing voters said they’re wary about Bush because of his issue positions. Some fear that his policies would favor the wealthy, while others point to his education policies and his position on abortion.
Who Will Win?
In the end, a plurality of voters think Bush will win the election: 48% expect a Bush victory Nov. 7, while 38% are anticipating Gore will win. Republicans overwhelmingly believe their nominee will be elected; 78% are confident Bush will win, only 12% think Gore will be victorious. Among Democrats, there’s less optimism. Fully a quarter of Democrats think Bush will get the nod. On balance, independents think Bush will win (47% vs. 35% who say Gore).
Just a few weeks ago, voters thought Gore would win. In early October, 46% chose Gore when asked who was most likely to win, while 33% chose Bush. Democrats were more upbeat about Gore’s chances at that point, but not as sure as Republicans are of Bush’s prospects today.
Positive Messages More Effective
So far, Bush’s positive campaign themes have been more effective than his harsh critiques of Gore. Voters give high marks to his message that he trusts people, rather than the government, to make decisions. Fully 47% of respondents say this statement makes them more likely to vote for Bush, compared to only 19% who say it makes them less likely to support him.
Bush’s promise to reach across party lines to get things done in Washington is also popular; 38% say it makes them more likely to vote for Bush, 17% less likely. Bush’s proposal to allow young workers to have the option of investing some of their Social Security taxes in private accounts is also resonating positively with voters.
When Bush attacks his opponent, however, his message draws somewhat more negative reactions. Only about three-in-ten voters say Bush’s criticisms of Gore’s tax cut, his questions about Gore’s trustworthiness, and his attempts to label Gore as a big government liberal make them any more likely to vote for Bush. In all three cases, nearly as many say such charges make them less likely to support the Texas governor. More important, these assertions are particularly unpopular among swing voters. Fewer than one-in-five swing voters are moved to support Bush after hearing his critiques of Gore, and for each, a larger proportion of swing voters say they are less likely to support Bush after hearing such attacks.
Like Bush, Gore’s most effective campaign themes are positive instead of negative, although Gore has somewhat more success with his attacks on Bush than vice versa. Gore’s most appealing claim is that he will fight for working families and stand up to special interests. Fully 42% of voters say this makes them more likely to vote for the vice president, while only 17% say it makes them less likely to back him. Swing voters who say Gore’s populist claim makes them more likely to support him outnumber those who say the opposite by a five-to-one margin (51% to 10%).
Gore’s charge that Bush’s tax cut plan would mostly benefit the wealthiest Americans resonates with 40% of voters, while only 22% are turned off by such an attack. Claims that Bush has done a poor job in Texas on issues like health care and the environment, and the charge that Bush’s Social Security plan would risk bankrupting the system may also be effective. But for Gore, raising the abortion issue is more controversial. While 37% say Gore’s assertion that Bush would appoint abortion rights opponents as justices to the Supreme Court makes them more likely to vote for the vice president, 29% say they are less likely to vote for Gore.
Overall, Gore faces somewhat less of a backlash from swing voters for using negative campaign themes. Fully 43% of swing voters say the charge that Bush’s tax plan favors the wealthy makes them more supportive of Gore, while only 14% are driven away. Similarly, more swing voters move toward Gore when he criticizes Bush’s record in Texas (32%), and emphasizes the risks of Bush’s Social Security plan (36%), than are alienated by such criticisms (15% and 14% respectively).
Turnout May Match ’96
Relatively few voters cite outright distaste for the candidates — or their inability to make up their minds about how to vote — as reasons for not going to the polls on Election Day. Indeed, lack of enthusiasm for Gore and Bush is mentioned more often as a reason for not voting. And while this indifference may depress overall turnout, it could hurt Gore more than Bush.
Only 8% of voters say they might not turn up at the polls because they don’t like either Bush or Gore very much, and just 7% say that the difficulty of making up their minds may lead them not to vote.
But the fact that voters are not deeply dissatisfied with the candidates does not necessarily mean they possess the fervor to spur voting. Among Gore supporters, 19% say they are not enthusiastic over the prospect of voting for the vice president, and 15% of Bush supporters say the same about their candidate. But more Bush supporters (66%) completely reject the notion that their lack enthusiasm will keep them from voting; just 57% of Gore supporters feel that way.
Whether the tightness of the race will increase turnout on Nov. 7 remains an open question. Fully 77% of voters say they are very interested in voting because the presidential race is so close. However, general levels of attention to this year’s campaign are no higher than they were during the 1996 election, which Clinton won easily. The two-thirds of registered voters who say they have given quite a lot of thought to the coming presidential election is comparable to October 1996 (65%), and October 1988(69%), years when only 49% and 50%, respectively, of age-eligible voters turned out at the polls. By comparison, fully 77% said they had given a lot of thought to the election in 1992, when turnout rose to 55%.
Bush Bolsters Personal Advantage
Bush now leads Gore by solid margins on several important personal traits, including willingness to take unpopular political stands (by 14 points), honesty (11 points), and likability (nine points). In addition, he has continued to whittle away at Gore’s once strong advantage as being personally qualified to become president, and is regarded by far fewer voters as a “typical” politician than Gore.
While Bush has made significant overall gains since September, he also has increased his advantage among key political and demographic groups in the short period since the last Pew Research Center poll (in mid-October). The trend has been especially pronounced among independents, who give Bush a slight overall edge in the presidential horse race (40%-36% among registered voters), but generally see him more favorably than Gore. In mid-October, independents were split over who was the more likable candidate (39% said Bush, 38% Gore); now fully 53% of independents see Bush as more likable, while just 32% choose Gore.
In addition, Bush has doubled his nine-point edge among independents as the candidate better described as having new ideas. And independents are divided over which man is more qualified to become president (40% say Gore, 38% Bush). In mid-October, the vice president held a 15-point lead on qualifications.
Reflecting Bush’s gains among union households, more of these traditionally Democratic voters are also taking a favorable view of the Texas governor’s character and personality. Members of union households are deadlocked over which candidate is better described as honest (37%-37%). Gore holds a slim three-point edge on likability among voters in union households (45%-42%).
Bush’s image is also wearing well among other groups. Fully 55% of college graduates now see him as more likable, compared to 30% who say that about Gore. Bush’s lead among college graduates on this question was just five points (42%-37%) in mid-October.
Large numbers of the oldest voters (those over age 65) as well as the youngest (those under age 30) favor Bush on likability and honesty, reflecting Bush’s increased strength among these groups. But Gore has made strides on these questions among middle-aged voters (those age 30-49). Bush holds only a slight three-point edge among these voters as the more likable candidate (down from 14 points in mid-October). Gore also has trimmed Bush’s 14-point advantage on honesty among these voters to four points (40%-36%).
Little Movement on Issues
Still, issues remain Gore’s forte, and he continues to hold solid leads over Bush on making prescription drugs more affordable for seniors, Social Security and Medicare and health care. However, Bush has made some gains, notably on defense policy and keeping the economy strong.
Since mid-October, Bush’s lead on defense policy — one of only two issues on which he has a clear edge — has grown from a slight four points to 10 points. There is a wide gender gap on the question of which candidate would better manage the military. Bush holds a 57%-34% advantage among men on handling defense policy, while women are split (44% for each candidate). In addition, independents continue to favor Bush on this issue by a wide margin (51%-33%).
Since mid-October, Bush has cut Gore’s lead on maintaining a strong economy in half, from 12 points to six points. Slightly more college graduates now favor Bush on this issue (47%-41%); in mid-October, Gore held just a two-point edge among college graduates.
But beyond retaining his overall edge on most major issues, Gore also has made gains among some groups. For instance, independents now favor Gore on health care by 45%-31%; in mid-October his lead was just eight points (43%-35%). Similarly, a growing number of independents say Gore is better able to handle Social Security and prescription drugs for seniors.
Government’s Image Improves
HMOs, oil companies, and pharmaceutical companies — which have been the main target of Gore’s populist campaign themes — are all judged less favorably than the federal government by voters. Of those three institutions, HMOs and oil companies are clearly the least popular. Less than a third of voters feel favorably toward these two industries, compared to 45% for pharmaceutical companies.
There is a sizable partisan split regarding oil companies, with 45% of Republicans and just 26% of Democrats rating them favorably. Negative feelings toward HMOs are consistent across all groups, with the exception of blacks and voters under 30, who rate them a bit more positively (49% and 42%, respectively).
On the issue of prescription drugs specifically, voters have more confidence in the federal government than in HMOs. By a better than two-to-one margin (59%-25%), voters want the proposed prescription drug benefit for seniors to be managed by the government as part of the Medicare program, rather than by private insurance companies.
Overall, 54% of voters say they have a favorable opinion of the federal government in Washington. This represents a vast improvement from October 1997, when only 37% rated the government favorably and 61% judged it unfavorably. Satisfaction with the federal government is strongest among Democrats (72% favorable), blacks (72%) and voters under age 30 (59%). The least favorable views are held by Republicans (40% favorable) and evangelical Christians (43% favorable). Fully 72% of Gore supporters have a favorable opinion of the federal government, compared to only 40% of Bush supporters.
The news media is viewed about as favorably as the government, with 50% rating it positively. That is comparable to ratings the media has received in recent years — roughly half the electorate has rated the news media favorably over the past three years. Again, there is a significant partisan divide, with only 39% of Republicans feeling favorably toward the media compared to 60% of Democrats.