The Public’s Agenda
No single issue is compelling to the American public in this campaign. When asked what one issue they would most like to hear presidential candidates discuss, seven subjects were clustered at the top of the list of volunteered responses: taxes, health care, the economy, welfare, education, balanced budget, and jobs. The frequency of mentions ranged from 16% for taxes to 8% for jobs. More interesting than the frequency, however, is the change in concern about these issues compared to the recent past. Taxes are mentioned twice more often now than in October 1995 (16% vs. 8%). Health care is cited less often now than last fall during the Medicare debate (14% vs. 20%). The economy was cited three times more often in 1991 than it is now, and jobs twice as often in 1991 than now (43% vs. 13%). Welfare reform and education were mentioned by 12% and 11%, respectively, which is somewhat more often than last year, whereas slightly fewer respondents cited balancing the budget and crime.
As would be expected, taxes and the balanced budget are cited about twice as often by Dole supporters and leaners as by Clinton supporters and leaners. Taxes are the top issue of those respondents who do not now support Dole but who said they might in November, but taxes are also the main issue for those voters who might swing to Clinton. Health care is mentioned twice more often by Clinton supporters than Dole’s, but Perot’s supporters mentioned this issue almost as often as Clinton’s. Reflecting the changing character of Perot’s supporters, jobs are cited by them four times more often than by Dole backers.
Tobacco Draws Attention
Voters as usual are paying more attention to events than to rhetoric. The two political stories to which they gave most attention were the Administration’s efforts to regulate tobacco sales to children, followed very closely by 37%; and Clinton’s signing of the welfare reform bill, followed very closely by 31%.
Despite professed high interest in tax issues, respondents were relatively less attentive to news of Dole’s tax cut plan (22% followed very closely) and Clinton’s tax breaks for home and school (20%). The family values debate attracted 23%. Respondents showed least interest in the stories that were critical, whether it was Republican criticism of Hillary Clinton (19% followed very closely) or Democratic criticism of Newt Gingrich (16%), Dole’s criticism of Clinton’s efforts to combat drugs (15%) or attacks on Jack Kemp’s position switches on affirmative action and immigration (11%). Just 17% followed very closely news about the resignation of the former Clinton political campaign guru Dick Morris.
Among key voter categories, Independents who lean Republican were more attentive to the tobacco story, the family values debate and Jack Kemp’s position changes than were Independents who lean Democratic.
Most respondents who closely followed the criticism of Hillary Clinton disagreed with that criticism (58%), while most respondents who closely followed criticism of Gingrich agreed with it (52%). While Mrs. Clinton fared better in comparison to Gingrich, she did worse compared to herself four years earlier. In September 1992, a significantly larger proportion, 73%, said they mostly disagreed. Women were more likely than men to disagree with criticism of the First Lady. Although Republicans were more likely to agree with the criticism, a sizeable portion of them (25%) disagreed. No significant gender gap was found among those who agreed with criticism of Gingrich.
Few A’s or B’s For Dole’s Effort
Almost twice as many respondents gave Clinton high grades compared to Dole for selling himself to the voters. Fully 50% gave him either an A or B for the “job he is doing in convincing you to vote for him,” compared to 28% for Dole. Most Democrats (74%) grade the Clinton campaign A or B. Dole, on the other hand, did relatively poorer with his party: just 52% of Republicans give him a good grade. Reflecting these views, no fewer than 76% of the public think that Clinton will win the election. Even 54% of Dole backers expect a Clinton victory.
Campaign Coverage: A Mixed Grade
A majority of Americans (57%) gives the news media excellent or good grades (13% and 44%, respectively) for covering the Presidential campaign so far. This is precisely the same job rating it received four years ago, in September 1992, and is significantly better than the press’ showing during the July doldrums between the nomination battles and the conventions. Criticism of campaign coverage was more evident among men, whites, college graduates, Republicans, and Independents who lean Republican.
As four years ago, most voters think journalists want to see Clinton win the election. But again, most of the public also thinks that media is being fair in their coverage of both candidates. A 59% majority of registered voters believe that most journalists want Clinton to win the election, compared to 17% for Dole and 1% Perot. At the same time, two-thirds believe the media has been fair in their coverage of the campaigns of both major candidates: 67% said that of Clinton’s campaign (down somewhat from 74% four years ago), and 65% said that of Dole’s campaign. Noteworthy is that more Republicans said the press has been unfair to Clinton than did Democrats or Independents (29% vs. 20% and 22%, respectively). Republicans were much more likely to say coverage of Dole has been unfair (46% vs. 13% of Democrats and 21% of Independents). Republicans were also far more likely to see the media as biased toward a Clinton victory (73% vs. 43% of Democrats).
Nonetheless, almost two-thirds (64%) of registered voters believe that news organizations have too much influence on who wins, while 4% said too little and 30% said about the right amount. Republicans more often said the media has too much power compared to Democrats and Independents (77% vs. 54% and 64%, respectively).
Backing up the media’s claim that the recent political conventions were boring, only 14% of the public said they followed the coverage very closely. But when asked about the highly emotional recitations of personal tragedies that were used to dramatize issues at the conventions, almost two out of three (64%) who followed these events closely said it was good that such subjects were raised, while 29% said it was a bad thing. Younger respondents liked these portrayals more than older ones: 73% of the under 30 year olds vs. 54% of those 50 and over said it was a good thing.