The Buck Doesn’t Stop Here…
Beyond increased economic anxiety, the poll of 2,000 adult Americans found discontent with the course of the country even greater than it was four years ago. However, unlike 1991 the concern is not nearly as singularly focused on the condition of the economy, and Bill Clinton, at least for now, is escaping the blame. The public is pinning it on Congress and to a lesser extent, shouldering it themselves.
Americans who are dissatisfied with the “way things are going” in the nation (73% of respondents) cite in free response questions a broad range of largely familiar issues. Most often mentioned are the condition of the economy, fear of crime, and concerns about the health care system. Health care was mentioned spontaneously more often than in response to open questions in surveys conducted over the past 18 months. This undoubtedly reflects public concerns raised by the Medicare/Medicaid debate in Congress.
Almost as many Americans are dissatisfied with the state of the nation because of the way the political system works as are disillusioned for other reasons. Higher taxes, the moral crisis, the size of government, a declining educational system, the need for welfare reform, and the budget deficit round out the long list of reasons that make Americans unhappy with conditions in the country.
Although no single problem or concern is driving public discontent with the country’s course, the public is more of one mind as to who’s at fault — 35% name Congress and 27% blame “the people themselves” for the country’s problems. In contrast, only 7% said the President is principally at fault. There are also less direct indications that Clinton may not be blamed as Presidents usually are for the country’s problems. Four years ago, a strong correlation existed between attitudes toward the state of the nation and views about re- electing George Bush. Today, there is a weaker relationship between the national mood and a second term for Bill Clinton.
Congress is now a bigger target than it has been in the past because it is criticized both by those who fault the political system, and by those who decry the policies of the Republican leadership. Large percentages of Democrats and Republicans now see Congress as most responsible for the country’s troubles. There is little indication that the “Republican revolution” has altered American antipathy toward the Congress. It now gets a lower favorability rating than it did prior to the mid-term elections of 1994. The only significant change observed is that the public’s intention to vote for Democratic congressional candidates is appreciably higher than it was two months ago.
More Criticism of Business
Despite deep and growing concern about wages and layoffs, relatively few Americans blame either business corporations (8%) or Wall Street (2%) for the country’s problems. However, the poll does show the public with a less positive view of business than last year; the percentage holding an unfavorable opinion of business corporations increased from 24% in 1994 to 36% in the current survey. More significantly, the survey found a deep belief that corporations care little about their customers and employees and too much about their stockholders and top executives. Just 4% of the public said corporations put the interests of their employees first and 6% said the customer comes first. Most respondents said big companies care primarily about their shareholders (46%) and top executives (34%). The public would have it otherwise: 31% said the customer should come first, 30% said employees, 15% said stockholders. Only 4% believe corporations should put the interests of top executives first. These public views about corporate priorities were largely shared by Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike. Americans of all political persuasions also felt that corporate mergers should be scrutinized more carefully by government in the future.
The Public’s Agenda
The public as a whole sends a very mixed message as to what issues it wants discussed by Presidential candidates. While voters remain keenly interested in the economy, issues that have emerged from the budget debate now rival that topic on their political agenda. Only one-in-five respondents to the Times Mirror survey volunteered that economic conditions should be the top issue of the campaign (down from close to 60% four years ago). Even jobs, cited by 6%, was less that half the 15% mentioned in 1991. Health care reform received as many mentions as the economy (20%), after which the public cited balancing the budget (14%). A significant percentage also mentioned crime (9%), welfare reform (8%), the moral crisis (8%) and education reform (6%). Very few people spoke spontaneously of improving race relations (2%).
Somewhat broader and more altruistic answers are given by many respondents when presented a list and asked to rank what the next President’s top tasks should be. However, again no consensus emerged and priorities very much reflected the predominant values within the electorate. If anything, dealing with the moral breakdown in the country is the one recurring theme that runs across the political spectrum. Once a strictly Republican refrain, and still the top issue for social conservatives (Moralists), this issue has considerable saliency with Independents and with moderate New Democrats and conservative New Dealers.
In contrast, the survey found little indication that the Million Man March or the O.J. Simpson case has created greater interest among whites in the racial issue. Just 12% of white Americans said that dealing with racial tension should be one of the President’s two top priorities.
Character, Compassion, Stay-the-Course Leadership
Although voters are sending a mixed message about issues, there is a considerable consensus about the personal qualities Americans are looking for in their next president. High ethical standards, compassion for the average citizen, and good judgement in a crisis are traits that overwhelming majorities of the public believe are crucially important. Few partisan differences are evident in this respect. Republicans put somewhat more emphasis on high ethical standards, and Democrats stress compassion more, but overall, both attributes are considered highly desirable by members of both parties and by Independents as well.
A second priority tier included strong leadership qualities such as decisiveness, consistency on issues and sincerity in saying what one believes. The poll found much less interest in characteristics associated with political professionalism. Relatively few respondents put much value on willingness to compromise, party loyalty, political savvy, experience in public office or familiarity with Washington.
These findings offer a sharp contrast to the results of a similar question asked by the Gallup Poll in 1979. Then, as now, there was much voter interest in a compassionate President who would have good judgement in a crisis. But an electorate disillusioned with Jimmy Carter gave experience in government higher priority and ethical standards lower priority than do voters today.
In the current survey, voters often associated Colin Powell or Bill Clinton with the qualities they most want in a President. Powell, who has since decided that he will not run, was most identified with good character and good judgement. Clinton was most identified with compassion. Neither Dole nor any of the other announced GOP candidates were named most often in association with highly rated personal qualities.
Powell’ s strong showing in the polls as a Republican challenger has reflected the fact that his personal image coincides with the qualities voters say they want in a President. But it also has reflected the retired general’s unique ability to attract diverse groups of voters. From Enterpriser Republicans to Partisan Poor Democrats, large majorities said they can envision the possibility of voting for Powell. No other Republican candidate is attractive to Independent voters, let alone Democrats. Dole appeals to all three right of Center groups, but turns off Independents. Gingrich and Gramm only appeal to Enterprisers; majorities of populist Moralists and more moderate Libertarians say they are not likely to vote for either man should they be candidates next November. Buchanan gets few expressions of support from any of the Republican groups. Surprisingly, only 32% of Moralists say there is a chance they would vote for the former presidential speech writer if he is on the ballot next year.
In contrast, eight in ten or more of each of the Democratic groups say there is a good chance or some chance that they would vote to re-elect Bill Clinton. And more importantly, more than six-in-ten of the Independent groups in the People & the Press typology say they might vote for the President. It is difficult to distinguish whether this result is due more to revitalized support for Clinton or concern-based opposition to the GOP policies. In particular, Clinton’s approval ratings have increased most among whites, seniors, middle income people, and suburbanites. All are groups that have been important to the GOP’s recent electoral success, but they now express more anxiety about the future and less approval of Republican policies. The President has improved his image the most within his own ranks among moderate New Democrats and older New Dealers.
Gender and race also play an important role in the changing political fortunes of the President and GOP leaders. White males, who voted Republican heavily in the mid-term elections are now divided over the party leaders’ policies, and look more favorably on Clinton than they did a year ago. White females give Clinton a moderately positive rating (48% approve, 40% disapprove), but give GOP leaders a much more negative evaluation (36% approve, 50% disapprove). Non-whites strongly support the president and are equally opposed to the plans and policies of Republican leaders.
Besides growing concerns about the personal consequences of budget cutting, the differing views of men and women about government are an important element in public opinion. White females are much greater supporters of an activist government than are white men. Overall, non-whites of both sexes favor an activist government far more than white men and women. White males see themselves as having a more conservative view on government than they believe Clinton does, while white women rate Clinton’s philosophy close to their own. All of the GOP leaders are seen by both white women and white men as being more anti-government than are voters themselves. This is especially the case for Gingrich.
The unusual degree of political cohesion among Democratic groups is clearly an important element in Clinton’s new found political strength. Compared to four years ago, the current poll found larger percentages of Democrats saying that it matters who’s elected President and that there are real differences between the parties. The percentage of Democrats saying that there are real differences between the two parties rose from 28% in 1994 to 41% currently. Fewer Republicans (36%) and Independents (27%) expressed that opinion. Although Democrats seem more energized and united, there is little indication that either party has gained new converts. Nor has strong interest in a third party subsided. The GOP had held a slight edge in party affiliation in Times Mirror Center surveys conducted between December 1994 and March 1995. But in all surveys since April, including the new poll, equal percentages of survey respondents self-identified with each party. Both parties are less well regarded by Independent voters than they were last summer and the percentage of the public favoring creation of a third party has increased slowly over the course of the past 15 months (53%, July 1994; 57% April 1995; 59% currently).
The public’s views of the two parties are echoed in the way it judges the accomplishments of the President and the Republican congressional leadership. Few think Clinton (24%) or the GOP leaders (20%) have made progress in dealing with the country’s problems. Most think each has tried but not succeeded (50% and 40% respectively). Even core constituents doubt that progress has been made either by the President or by Republican leaders. Only fiercely partisan free market Enterprisers see GOP success, and only the Partisan Poor think Clinton is making progress in dealing with the country’s problems.