November 11, 2004

Voters Liked Campaign 2004, But Too Much ’Mud-Slinging’

Moral Values: How Important?

Summary of Findings

Campaign 2004 receives generally favorable marks from the voters. An overwhelming 86% say they learned enough about the candidates to make an informed choice, while two-thirds express satisfaction with the choice of candidates. However, voters also believe this campaign was more negative than previous contests ­ 72% say there was more mud-slinging in this campaign compared with past elections, up from just 34% who said that four years ago.

The Pew Research Center’s quadrennial post-election survey, conducted among 1,209 voters who were originally interviewed in October, finds that a third of all voters say they are very satisfied with their choice of candidates ­ the highest percentage expressing that view in post-election surveys dating to 1988. That reflects extraordinary enthusiasm among Republicans, 63% of whom express a high degree of satisfaction with the candidates. As a point of comparison, in 1996 just 34% of Democrats said they were very satisfied with the candidates after Bill Clinton’s easy reelection victory.

For their part, supporters of Sen. John Kerry are struggling with a range of emotions following their candidate’s defeat. The dominant reaction to Bush’s reelection among Kerry’s supporters is disappointment (82%), but about a third (35%) say they feel angry over the election outcome. Liberals, in particular, express intense feelings as a result of the election. Roughly half of Kerry’s liberal supporters say they feel angry (53%) or depressed (47%) because of Bush’s victory.

In contrast, large majorities of Bush voters say they feel reassured, relieved and safer as a consequence of the president’s reelection. However, while 72% of Bush’s conservative supporters say they feel a sense of excitement as a result of Bush’s win, just 48% of moderate and liberal Republicans share that sentiment.

Most voters (61%) believe that Bush’s second term will be successful. While this opinion is nearly universal among Republicans, most independents (58%) and a sizable minority of Democrats (30%) also thinks that Bush’s second term will be a success. However, by 52%-42%, Democrats favor the party’s leaders standing up to the GOP, rather than working with Republicans if that means disappointing some Democratic groups.

The survey findings parallel exit poll results showing that moral values is a top-tier issue for voters. But the relative importance of moral values depends greatly on how the question is framed. The post-election survey finds that, when moral values is pitted against issues like Iraq and terrorism, a plurality (27%) cites moral values as most important to their vote. But when a separate group of voters was asked to name ­ in their own words ­ the most important factor in their vote, significantly fewer (14%) mentioned moral values. Regardless of how the question is asked, the survey shows that moral values is the most frequently cited issue for Bush voters, but is seldom mentioned by Kerry voters.

In addition, those who cite moral values as a major factor offer varying interpretations of the concept. More than four-in-ten (44%) of those who chose moral values as the most important factor in their vote from the list of issues say the term relates to specific concerns over social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage. However, others did not cite specific policy issues, and instead pointed to factors like the candidates’ personal qualities or made general allusions to religion and values.

The survey shows that both parties were successful in reaching their voters, which led to a substantial rise in turnout this year. Fully 64% of all voters say they were contacted by the Bush and Kerry campaigns or other groups by phone, in person, or by email. More than half (55%) were contacted by telephone, significantly more than in 2000 (42%). In the end, neither side gained the upper hand in reaching voters ­ as many say they were contacted by Kerry and his supporters as by Bush and his supporters.

With little fanfare, the Internet has broken through as a major source of campaign news in 2004. Overall, 41% voters say they got at least some of their news about the 2004 election online. Further, 21% relied on the Internet for most of their election news ­ nearly double the number in 2000 (11%).

Bush, Kerry Voters Agree ­ Campaign More Negative

Throughout the campaign, voters consistently said they thought the election was informative, and this remains the case today. More than eight-in-ten voters (86%) say they learned enough about the candidates and the issues to make an informed choice. That is about the same as in 2000 (83%) and far higher than in prior campaigns.

But there also has been a dramatic increase in perceptions that the campaign was excessively negative. Fully 72% say there was more mud-slinging or negative campaigning in this election compared with previous campaigns. That is more than double the percentage who expressed this opinion in the post-election survey four years ago (34%).

While the electorate is deeply divided on many issues, the sense that the campaign was more negative is shared by comparable numbers of Kerry voters (74%) and Bush voters (70%). This perception is widely shared across the demographic spectrum.

Grading the Campaign

When voters are asked to grade various players in the campaign, they award the highest grades to themselves. More than six-in-ten (64%) give “the voters” a grade of A or B for the job they did this year, up slightly from 60% in 2000. A 56% majority gives Bush an A or B, while 47% grade Kerry at A or B. Bush’s grade is about the same as the mark Clinton received following his reelection in 1996. Kerry’s grade is relatively high for a losing candidate.

Just 37% give the Democratic Party and A or B. That represents a sharp decline from 2000 (49%), although it is important to note that the post-election survey in 2000 was conducted before the election result was known. The Democratic Party’s rating is about the same as it was in 1988, after Michael Dukakis’s loss to George Bush Sr. (34% A or B).

Roughly half of voters (48%) give campaign consultants a grade of A or B, a modest increase from 2000 (43%). Pollsters have a much better image now than during the overtime election of four years ago, when there was considerable frustration with erroneous calls on election night. Currently, 45% give pollsters a grade of A or B, compared with 34% in 2000.

Talk show hosts and the press continue to receive relatively low grades. Fewer than four-in-ten (37%) give talk show hosts a grade of A or B, while just a third award those marks to the press.

Reactions to Election Outcome

Overall, a majority of voters (53%) are happy that George W. Bush was reelected, a proportion that tracks closely with voters’ choice for president. In 1996, an identical percentage said they were happy over Clinton’s reelection.

Understandably, attitudes toward the election result are highly polarized ­ 94% of Republicans say they are happy with Bush’s win, while 86% of Democrats are unhappy. Voters are similarly split in their reactions to the Republicans maintaining control over Congress.

Nine-in-ten Bush voters say they are “relieved” at the election outcome, while about as many say they are “reassured” and that they feel “safer.” A smaller majority of Bush voters say they are “excited” over Bush’s victory (64%).

While disappointment is the leading reaction among Kerry voters to the outcome, about three-quarters of those voters (74%) say they are “worried.” Roughly a third of Kerry voters say they are “angry” (35%) and somewhat fewer say they are “depressed” (29%).

Intense Reactions Among Conservatives, Liberals

Voters at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum express the most intense reactions to the election. Among Bush voters, more than nine-in-ten conservatives say they feel relieved, reassured and safer. And many more conservatives than moderates or liberals say they feel excited because of Bush’s victory.

Among Kerry voters, nearly twice as many liberals as moderates or conservatives say they feel angry as a consequence of the election. And while 47% of liberals say they are depressed by Bush’s win, just 21% of moderate and conservative Kerry supporters agree.

Looking Ahead

About six-in-ten voters (61%) expect Bush to have a successful second term as president, compared with 29% who believe his second term will be unsuccessful. This is on par with expectations for Clinton’s second term in 1996.

Nearly all Republicans foresee a successful second term for Bush (93%). Most independents (58%) also take a positive view of Bush’s prospects. Democrats are less upbeat: 30% predict a successful second term for the president, while 55% do not.

A narrow majority of Democrats (52%) think the party’s leaders should stand up to the Republicans on issues that are important to Democratic supporters; 42% think Democratic leaders should try to work with Republican leaders even if it means disappointing some groups of Democratic supporters.

Liberal Democrats, by two-to-one (62%-31%), want the party’s leaders to stand up to the GOP, while conservative and moderate Democrats are divided over the issue. About half of conservative and moderate Democrats (48%) say party leaders should take a stand against Republicans, while about as many (47%) favor a more cooperative approach.

Voters and the Issues

Since the election, there has been considerable debate over the relative importance of moral values to voters. More than one-in-five (22%) of those questioned by the National Election Pool on behalf of the Associated Press and the major networks cited moral values as the most important issue in their vote, from a list of seven items on the exit poll questionnaire. In Pew’s post-election survey, half of the respondents were presented with the same list of issues as on the exit poll ­ and asked to choose which was most important ­ while half were asked an open-ended version of the question.

Among those offered the seven-item list, a plurality of 27% selected moral values, followed by 22% who chose Iraq and 21% who selected the economy and jobs. Terrorism was chosen by 14%; education and health care were chosen by 4% each and taxes by 3% (see chart on pg. 2).

The responses were significantly different among those who were not offered a fixed list of choices. The war in Iraq was mentioned as the single most important issue by a similar number (25%), but the economy and jobs were mentioned by only 12%; and only 9% mentioned terrorism. Notably, just 9% used the terms “moral values,” “morals,” or “values.” Specific social issues ­ including abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research ­ were volunteered by 3%, while another 2% cited the candidates’ morals.

Regardless of how the question is asked, the poll shows that Bush and Kerry voters are far apart in their issue priorities. In both the open and closed formats, moral values are the most important issue to Bush voters ­ 44% selected it from the seven-item list, while 27% volunteered moral values or a related topic in the open format. In both forms of the question, terrorism and homeland security are the next most important issue for Bush voters. No Bush voters in the open-ended format mentioned education, and virtually none mentioned health care.

For Kerry voters, the format makes a difference in the relative ordering of the issues, though in both versions Iraq and economy eclipse other issues in importance. When presented with a list of seven items, about equal numbers of Kerry voters chose economy/jobs (36%) and Iraq (34%). In the open-ended format, nearly twice as many volunteered the war in Iraq (39%) as mentioned an economic issue (21%). Just 2% of Kerry voters volunteer any topic related to moral values, and even fewer mention terrorism as most important to their vote.

Defining Moral Values

The survey asked voters who were given the list of issues to describe, in their own words, “what comes to mind when you think about ‘moral values’?” Among voters who chose moral values as most important from the list of seven issues, about half gave a response that mentioned a specific issue. More than four-in-ten (44%) defined the phrase specifically in terms of social issues, including abortion (28%) homosexuality and gay marriage (29%), or stem cell research (4%). A few other issues also were mentioned, including poverty, economic inequality, and the like.

But the definition of moral values is not limited to policy references. Nearly a quarter of respondents (23%) who cited moral values as important explained their thinking in terms of the personal characteristics of the candidates, including honesty and integrity (cited by 9%). Almost one-in-five (18%) explicitly mentioned religion, Christianity, God, or the Bible. Another 17% answered in terms of traditional values, using such language as “family values,” “right and wrong,” or “the way people live their lives.”

People who did not choose moral values from the list of issues were also asked what the term meant to them. The pattern of responses was quite different from those who said moral values were an important consideration. Fewer mentioned a specific issue, candidate quality, or general religious theme; more answered in general terms, and 12% explicitly protested the imposition of others’ values on them, said the idea was being used as a “wedge” against Democrats, or otherwise expressed a negative reaction to the phrase.

Campaign Contact

Nearly two-in-three voters (64%) report being contacted either over the phone, by email, or in person by candidates, campaigns or other groups urging them to vote in a particular way in the election. A majority (55%) report receiving campaign phone calls, compared with 42% following the 2000 election. Far fewer report being contacted in person or by email (14% each). These alternative contact strategies ­ particularly email ­ were slightly more widespread among Kerry supporters than Bush supporters.

Campaign contacts were intensive in the key battleground states. About three-quarters of voters in battleground states (76%) were contacted by the campaigns in one form or another, compared with 55% in red states and 59% in blue states.

As many as 15% of voters report contributing money in support of one of the presidential candidates this year, and nearly one-in-ten (9%) say they personally volunteered to help one of the presidential campaigns.

Contribution rates were about even among both Bush and Kerry supporters, but Kerry’s backers volunteered time on behalf of the campaign at a slightly higher rate (11% of Kerry supporters, 7% of Bush supporters).

Not surprisingly, younger voters were far less likely to make campaign contributions than older voters. Overall, just 7% of voters under age 30 contributed money to a campaign, compared with 12% of those age 30-49 and 20% of voters age 50 and over.

Bush Voters Decide Early

Nearly four-in-ten voters (38%) say they made up their minds about how to vote a year ago, even before the Democratic primaries had gotten underway. This represents nearly twice as many early deciders as during the open presidential election of four years ago.

As the incumbent, Bush was able to lock in much of his support early. A majority of the people who ultimately voted for Bush this year (52%) knew he would be their choice a year ago, compared with 28% of Kerry’s voters. In 1996, when Bill Clinton was running for reelection, a majority of his supporters also had decided before the end of 1995 that he would be their choice. Fewer than one-in-ten voters report making up their minds in the final week before election day, down from 14% four years ago and as many as 25% in 1992.

Many Vote Early, Some Faced Long Lines

One-in-five voters say they cast their ballots before Nov. 2. These early voters showed no clear preference in the presidential campaign, dividing their support about evenly between Bush and Kerry.

Most of those who voted on Election Day say they either did not have to wait in line at all (42%), or waited for less than 15 minutes (13%). Another 11% reported lines of 15-to-29 minutes, and 10% say they waited up to an hour to vote. Nearly one-in-ten Election Day voters (8%) say they waited for over an hour to vote. Despite changes in voting procedures in many parts of the country, just 4% of voters reported having any problems or difficulties voting, whether by mail or on Election Day.

The vast majority of voters say they are very confident that their vote was accurately counted in the election, but voters express less confidence in the accuracy of the overall vote count nationwide. While 68% are very confident their own vote was counted accurately, just 48% express the same level of confidence that the votes across the country were accurately counted.

Fox News Moves Ahead

Television remains the dominant source of campaign news, and Fox News has emerged as the leading TV outlet for election news. Overall, 21% of voters say they got most of their news on the election from Fox, compared with 15% who relied mostly on CNN, and 13% on NBC News.

The Internet continues to grow in importance as a source for election news. The proportion who cite the Internet as one of their main sources of campaign news has risen exponentially: from 3% in 1996, to 11% in 2000, and 21% today. And the number who say they got any news online during the election this year has risen from 10% in 1996, to 30% in 2000, to 41% today.

Six-in-ten voters under age 30 report using the Internet as a news source at some point during the campaign, while 40% of those under-30 voters cite it is as a main source of campaign news. By comparison, 48% of those age 30-49, 38% of those age 50-64, and just 15% of voters age 65 and older reported any use of the Internet for campaign news.

More See Press as Unfair ­ to Both Candidates

Voters are increasingly troubled by what they see as the media’s unfair treatment of the candidates. While a majority (56%) view press coverage of Bush’s campaign as fair, four-in-ten think it was unfair, up from 30% four years ago.

Significantly more voters (65%) believe the press was fair in its coverage of the Kerry campaign. However, a growing minority also views this coverage as unfair ­ 31% say that now, compared with 24% who faulted press coverage of Al Gore’s campaign four years ago.

Huge Election Night Audience

Fully 84% of voters say they followed the returns on election night, and more than half of those who did so (51%) stayed up until after midnight. Among those who tracked the results, 97% watched on television, while 19% followed returns on the Internet. As with campaign news in general, younger voters were most likely to use the Internet ­ nearly a third of voters under age 30 report following election returns online, but most did so in addition to watching returns on TV.

Overall, news organizations receive relatively favorable reviews for their election night coverage. While just 17% who followed the returns say the coverage on election night was excellent, most (52%) say they did a good job. Three-in-ten say the coverage was only fair (22%) or poor (8%). Comparable numbers of Bush and Kerry supporters rated the coverage favorably.