Public Opinion And Polling Essay, Research Paper
Americans are showing signs of disaffection with a
presidential campaign that is just beginning. The public
thinks the press and large campaign contributors are
having too much influence on who gets nominated,
and a 60% majority thinks voters themselves have too
The latest Federal Election Commission, conducted
on the heels of protracted controversy about coverage
of alleged cocaine use by George W. Bush, found
public reservations about news coverage of most
“character issues” ranging from youthful drug use to
psychological counseling. The poll also shows only a
53% majority of Americans now saying that press scrutiny of political candidates is worth it and a
plurality rating political coverage as only fair or poor.
The response of the public is to tune out. Few are paying close attention to campaign news, while at
the same time an increasing number of people think the press is overcovering the campaigns. Not
surprisingly in this light, many Americans cannot even name a single candidate for the two parties’
nominations. Fully 37% of Federal Election Commission’s respondents could not offer up the name of a GOP candidate, and
even more — 50% — could not name a Democratic candidate, without prompting.
Public inattention to the campaign is about the only hopeful sign in this survey for Al Gore’s
candidacy. Opinion about the vice president is not improving. As in other recent nationwide surveys,
Gore continues to lag behind Bush in the general election matchup. This poll also shows his support
for the Democratic nomination softening.
These are the principal findings of a September 1-12, 1999,
Pew Research Center nationwide telephone poll of 1,205
adults. The allowance for sampling error and other random
effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
More Uncertainty Among Democrats
With Bill Bradley now formally in the race for the
Democratic nomination, support for Gore as the party’s
nominee has slipped, especially among Independents who
lean Democratic. The latest survey finds 58% of all
Democrats and Independents who lean Democratic saying
they would like to see Gore become the nominee — down
from 65% in July. But the vice president’s support has
tumbled more among Independent Democrats who now
divide their loyalties about equally between Bradley and
Gore. In July, they favored Gore to Bradley — 61% to 33%. As well as helping Bradley, Gore’s
declining support has created uncertainty among Democratic voters. The percent of Democrats who
say they won’t vote for either or are undecided has nearly doubled since July — 6% then to 10% now.
Gore’s personal image remains largely unchanged, as he is not penetrating the public’s consciousness.
Remarkably, less than half (46%) of the public and only 50% of Democrats can even come up with
Gore’s name when asked to name Democrats running for their party’s nomination. As to image, the
same number of Americans describe Gore in positive terms as did in April (20% vs. 19%). Still
nearly as many use words which, while not necessarily negative, poke fun at the vice president, such
as “boring,” “stiff” or “dull.”
Big Bush Lead
Bush’s lead over Gore in the presidential horse race
remains firm, just as Gore’s support from within his own
party has begun to show signs of weakening. Bush now
leads Gore among registered voters in a hypothetical
matchup by 54% to 39%.
At this early stage, Bush’s big lead over Gore does not
appear vulnerable to a third party challenge from Pat
Buchanan. However, in a closer race a Reform Party bid
by the conservative commentator might mean trouble for
Bush. Currently, Bush runs nearly as strong in a
hypothetical three-way matchup as he does in the
two-way contest with Gore. When choosing among Bush,
Gore, and Pat Buchanan as a Reform Party candidate,
fully 49% of registered voters prefer Bush; 35% would vote for Gore and 10% opt for Buchanan.
However, more Bush supporters than Gore voters migrate to Buchanan. Of those registered voters
who choose Buchanan in the three-way contest, 62% chose Bush in a two-way match up; only 30%
Within his party Bush maintains his big lead in popular support for the GOP nomination. When asked
in an open-ended format to name any of the Republican presidential contenders, fully 54% of
Americans and six-in-ten Republicans can identify Bush. Only 16% of the public and 22% of
Republicans can name Elizabeth Dole. The names of the rest of the field are recalled by about 10%
of Republicans or fewer.
Bush is the first choice nominee of 56% of Republicans and Independents who lean Republican, and
21% say he is their second choice. These numbers are largely unchanged from the 60% and 19%,
respectively, who voiced support for Bush in July. There are no signs that any other GOP candidate
has begun to break through at the national level. Bush’s
closest competition comes from Elizabeth Dole: 15% of
Republican voters say she is their first choice, 28% make
her their second choice. None of the other GOP hopefuls
reach double digit support. Forbes and McCain stand at
5% and 6%, while Quayle, Keyes, Hatch and Bauer all
fall at 5% or below.
While Bush remains highly popular in and out of his party,
the Texas governor’s image has been tarnished in recent
months. More Americans now describe Bush in negative
terms than did in March. Then, 36% used positive words
or phrases to describe Governor Bush, 12% volunteered
negative descriptors. Now, while positive descriptions still
dominate, 21% use negative terms. Fewer now describe
Bush in neutral terms.
Hands Off Personal Lives
In the midst of controversy over press coverage of Bush’s past, the public draws some clear lines
about what is fair game for news media scrutiny. Out of 13 hypothetical stories about presidential
candidates’ personal lives, clear majorities believe the press should almost always report on only four
of them. Nearly three-quarters of the public (71%) believe that if a candidate is known to have
physically abused a spouse, the press should almost always report the story. Just under two-thirds
(65%) think a candidate’s failure to pay income taxes should almost always be reported. Majorities
also believe lying about one’s academic or military record should be pursued by reporters (61% for
Past marital infidelity should not be covered say most Americans. Only 23% say such a story should
almost always be reported on; 21% say this should sometimes be reported. If a candidate is having
an affair during the course of the campaign, the public is much less forgiving. Forty-three percent say
this conduct should almost always be reported, another 20% say it should sometimes be reported.
These numbers are largely unchanged from 1987 when 41% said ongoing affairs should almost
always be reported and 25% said they should sometimes be reported.
The public expresses some ambivalence about the
newsworthiness of past drug use. Only 23% believe
news organizations should almost always pursue a
story about a candidate smoking marijuana as a
young adult. Another 19% say this should sometimes
be reported depending on the particular
circumstances. A 57% majority say such a story
should almost never be reported. Cocaine use is
viewed as somewhat more newsworthy. Just over
one-third (35%) of Americans think stories about a
candidate using cocaine as a young adult should
almost always be reported. Still, fully 40% say these
stories should almost never be reported. Similarly,
36% of the public says the press should almost
always report on a candidate who is found to have
had a drinking problem in the past.
Americans are much less interested in hearing about
the sexual orientation of political candidates
nowadays than was the case a decade ago. Today, only 38% of Americans say if a candidate is a
homosexual, this should almost always be reported by the media. This is down from 55% in 1987.
The public is relatively uninterested in hearing about a candidate’s psychiatric background. Fewer
than three-in-ten (28%) think that the media should almost always report if a candidate has been
treated by a psychiatrist in the past, with one-in-five interested in whether a candidate has taken
antidepressants. Of least interest to the public is whether a female candidate has had an abortion –
17% say this should always be reported.
Republicans and Democrats have markedly different views about what is and is not newsworthy. On
eight out of the 13 examples, Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats to endorse a
more aggressive role for the media. The most polarizing issue involves marital infidelity. Fully 57% of
Republicans say that if a candidate is having an affair during the campaign, news organizations should
almost always report on this. Only 30% of Democrats share this view.
Republicans are also tougher than Democrats on lying. Seven-in-ten GOP backers (71%) think the
media should always report if a candidate has exaggerated his or her military or academic record.
Among Democrats, a bare majority consider such stories newsworthy (52% and 53%, respectively).
Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say the press should pursue stories about past
marijuana use: 26% of Republicans vs. 17% of Democrats think this should always be reported.
However, when it comes to cocaine use, the two groups are largely in agreement — 36% of
Republicans and 35% of Democrats consider this highly newsworthy.