A New Third Force – Left of Center
Likely supporters of an independent candidate in ’96 are drawn from different quarters than were Perot voters in 1992 ( Only 40% of former Perot voters say they would be inclined to vote for an independent candidate for president next year. As many as 39% say they would vote Republican if the election were being held today.) The Texas billionaire’s supporters came more from the ranks of the Republican party, while the new third force voters more often have a Democratic pedigree. Nearly half are Democrats of two sorts: 27% are self professed, and 21% are independents who say they lean to the Democrats. Comparatively, they are younger, poorer, and are more likely to be women than were Perot voters. A majority of those disposed to an independent candidate (53%) say they are greater believers in government than Newt Gingrich, but a solid 45% plurality also say they are more supportive of an activist government than is Bill Clinton!
Senator Bill Bradley, who said he would consider an independent run in 1996, has on balance a positive public image, but the former Rhodes scholar/ basketball star is only known to about half the public, and to half of those most disposed to constitute a third force in American politics. Colin Powell continues to be the candidate best positioned to reap potential support from these constituencies. Ross Perot gets a mixed rating at best from these groups, except from those who say they voted for him in 1992.
The Democratic party’s inability to cash in on growing criticism of the Republican leadership is evidenced by the fact the GOP now has a larger lead over the Democratic party in Congressional voting intentions than it had last November. In the current poll, the GOP is favored by a 50% to 43% margin, compared to the slim 45% to 43% margin it held just before its historic victory in the fall of 1994.
Public Closer to Clinton’s View of Government
The problems of the Democratic party are not as ideologically based as they might seem. The public sees itself as closer to Bill Clinton’s position on the role of government than to Newt Gingrich’s, or even Bob Dole’s point of view. When asked to rate themselves on a six-point scale, where 1 represented someone who wants to cut government, and 6 someone who favors maintaining government programs, Times Mirror’s respondents gave themselves on average a rating of 3.7. Clinton’s average rating was a nearby 4.0, while Dole’s presumed view was a more distant 3.0 and Gingrich’s was even further away at 2.7.
Moreover, huge majorities of the public disapproved of most of the key programs advanced by the GOP Congress. Three-fourths of respondents disapproved the discontinuance of summer jobs programs for youth (77% vs. 21% approved) and reduction of federal funding for low income school districts (76% vs. 21%). Almost two-thirds (65%) disapproved elimination of the National Service Corps under which young people earned money for college through volunteer work. Slightly lower but still substantial majorities disapproved reducing the rate of growth in Medicare spending (61% vs. 34%), cutting funds for public housing programs (59% vs. 37%), and cutting the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency (57% vs. 39%).
The public did approve, on the other hand, budget cuts for the National Endowment for the Arts (52%, vs. 41% disapprove), reduced spending on food stamps (58% vs. 36%), and the most popular of all GOP initiatives, cutting foreign aid funding (76% vs. 21%).
Republicans and Democrats sharply and predictably differed on the desirability of making these cuts. However, even among Republicans two to one majorities opposed discontinuing summer jobs programs, and cutting federal funding to low income school districts. On the other hand, two in three Democrats favored cutting foreign aid, and many approved reduced spending on food stamps. Americans disposed to a third party candidate in ’96 echoed the views of Clinton supporters on the budget cut items tested in the survey. But unlike Clinton supporters, they have more confidence in the GOP than in the Democrats to balance the budget.
Medicare and Welfare Reform Top News Interest
Along with the death of baseball legend Mickey Mantle, news from Washington about Medicare and welfare reform were the public’s top news stories last month. While about one in four Americans said they were paying very close attention to these stories, and almost as many were following news about proposals to end affirmative action, the findings of the poll underscore the public’s foggy view of policy making and governance:
- Only 21% of the public knew that the House of Representatives passed more legislation this session than the Senate. Virtually as many respondents (19%) said the Senate had enacted most new measures, and 60% said simply “don’t know.”
- Almost two in five (38%) correctly said Congress was proposing to decrease regulations of the telecommunications industries, while 23% thought it was trying to increase them (and 39% said don’t know). Of those who answered correctly, almost half (47%) said decreased regulation was a good idea and 33% said it was a bad idea. Republicans approved decreased regulations more than Independents and Democrats (57% vs 49% and 37%, respectively).
- Only 24% correctly knew that President Bill Clinton opposes lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia; 19% said he favors the embargo, and 57% chose neither answer.
Just 16% of the public followed news about Bosnia very closely even though the poll was taken on a weekend when three American diplomats lost their lives near Sarajevo while traveling to negotiate a peace settlement of the civil war there. This was a sharp drop from 22% two months earlier when the downed U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot, Capt. Scott O’Grady, was rescued.
The Republican nomination race is about as interesting to the public as Bosnia. Merely 13% said they followed news about the contest very closely; even among Republicans, only 17% said they were that attentive. When asked to name any GOP candidates, 51% could name Bob Dole. But 44% could not name anyone and 26% could name only one man, while 29% named two or more candidates. Among Republicans, 60% named Dole while as many as 34% could not name any candidate.
The one fact from Washington that has penetrated is about Medicare. Fully 87% of Americans said they had heard “leaders in Washington” saying that the program of medical care for citizens 65 years old and older is having financial problems. But respondents differed sharply on whether it was true or not. A bare majority of 52% said it was true but 37% said the leaders were “only saying this because they want to cut Medicare benefits as a way of balancing the budget.” Among Republicans, 62% believed the crisis was true, compared to fewer than half of Democrats and Independents.
Americans were about as poorly informed about U.S. relations with China as they were about the Bosnian arms embargo. Barely one in five (22%) replied correctly that Sino-American relations were getting worse, 16% said they were improving, and 53% said they were staying about the same. Of those who answered correctly, only 29% agreed that “the United States should try to promote democracy in China even if it risks worsening relations,” while more than twice that proportion (66%) agreed “the United States should not get involved in China’s domestic affairs even if it means overlooking human rights abuses.” Republicans were more willing to promote democracy than were Democrats or Independents (38% vs. 31% and 22%, respectively.) As we found two years ago, Americans continue to reject many of their altruistic concerns, such as promoting democracy and human rights in the world, following the end of the Cold War (“America’s Place in the World: An Investigation of the Attitudes of American Opinion Leaders and the American Public About International Affairs.” Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press, November, 1993. Washington, DC. In the public poll, 26% agreed that promoting human and civil rights was worth the risk of “seriously antagonizing friendly nations whose traditions do not conform to our ideals;” 69% said it was not worth that risk.)
Finally, of the half dozen knowledge questions in the poll, the public was best informed on a non-political issue: “what the phrase Windows 95 refers to.” Fully 42% responded correctly that it was a new computer software package. Men knew the correct answer more than women (50% vs. 35%), college graduates five times more than those who did not finish high school (66% vs. 13%), middle aged persons 30 to 49 years old more than younger or older respondents (51% vs. 41% and 31%, respectively), and those who live in the Western part of the country (53% vs. 43% in the East, 38% in the South, and 37% in the Midwest).
Affirmative Action Divides
News about proposals to end affirmative action drew the close attention of about one in five Americans. But this story attracts twice as large a black audience (36%) as a white one (17%). Curiously, men show more interest in news about this (25%) than women (15%). And there is an even bigger gender gap on the policy itself.
A 58% to 36% majority of all respondents favored “affirmative action programs designed to help blacks, women and other minorities get better jobs and education.” But when asked about “affirmative action programs which give special preferences to qualified blacks, women and other minorities in hiring and education,” respondents split evenly, 46% to 46%. In both formulations, large majorities of non-whites were in favor of the policy. White women are enthusiastic supporters of affirmative action when there is no mention of special preferences but divided when that phrase is used in the question. White men, on the other hand, are divided about the policy when special preferences are not mentioned , and opposed overwhelmingly when it is.
In their approaches to reforming affirmative action programs, the public did not see much to choose from between the parties: 44% favored Republicans, 41% favored Clinton and the Democrats. But asked about the approaches to reducing the federal budget deficit and balancing the budget, 49% favored Republicans while only 34% favored Clinton and the Democrats. A similar Times Mirror question a year ago found 42% favoring Republicans and 36% favoring Democrats (July, 1994. The question asked “Which political party could do a better job of reducing the federal budget deficit.”)
Waco’s Toll on FBI Image
A surprisingly high level of public interest was found in the Congressional hearings about the federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas: 18% said they followed this news very closely. In what may be a correlative effect, positive attitudes toward the Federal Bureau of Investigation which took part in the raid have plummeted. Only 16% of respondents said they have a very favorable opinion of the FBI, compared to 34% who had a very favorable impression just three months earlier in an ABC News /Washington Post poll. Unfavorable views of the Bureau increased from 9% in May to 28% in the current survey. In contrast, attitudes toward the National Rifle Association have remained essentially unchanged: 44% favorable, 45% unfavorable.
Too Much Whitewater…
The Congressional Whitewater hearings drew a small audience — 11% followed very closely. As in past polls, few (15%) think the Clintons are not guilty of any wrong doing in the case, but many (48%) said they are guilty of only minor offenses. Almost half of respondents (49%) said the Congress is giving too much attention to Whitewater, 12% said too little, and 36% said the right amount. Much the same was said of the media on Whitewater: 45% too much, 15% too little, 37% the right amount. Not surprisingly, roughly twice as many of those who followed the hearings very closely said too little attention was being paid to the case by both Congress and the media.
The sexual harassment charges against Sen. Bob Packwood were seen somewhat differently. About half said both the media and Congress were paying about the right amount of attention to the issue. One fourth said the Congress and the media were paying too much attention to the charges against Packwood. Men and women, perhaps surprisingly, differed very little in their answers.
Other Findings …
- Colin Powell’s unfavorable ratings increased most sharply among blacks – from 8% in February, to 28% in the current poll.
- Bob Dole’s unfavorable rating has increased the most in the East and West. The Senator from Kansas is better regarded in his native Midwest region and in the South.
- Men and women have very different views about the role of government. Most men (48%) say they favor cutting government more than Bill Clinton does. Most women (39%) say they favor maintaining government programs more than the President does.
- Only 8% of Americans followed very closely news about the death of counter culture icon, Jerry Garcia. Generation Xer’s paid slightly more attention (13%) than did baby boomers (9%).