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Americans Again Attentive

In the wake of Clinton’s nationally-televised address, Americans tuned back into news about the scandal — and lowered their personal opinions about Clinton. Fully 72% of Americans were following the investigation very or somewhat closely, up from 56% the week before.

The recent turn of events has further tarnished Clinton’s personal image. The most damning evidence may come from people’s own descriptions of the president. Americans continue to give a mix of positive and negative answers for the “one word” that best describes Clinton, although the balance has shifted noticeably from two years ago. In the summer of 1996, “good” was mentioned more often than any other word. Now, “liar” and “dishonest” are the two most frequently mentioned descriptors.

At the same time, the latest revelations have not dampened Clinton’s job approval ratings and most Americans still want the president to serve out his term — 75% say it would be better for the country for Clinton to stay in office and 55% oppose impeachment even if Clinton obstructed justice by encouraging Lewinsky to lie.

Indeed, the possibility of impeachment wins less support today than it did in February or March, even as most Americans have come to accept that Clinton probably or definitely had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky and lied about it under oath. Some 83% say it is likely Clinton lied under oath about the affair, up from 66% earlier this month.

While more Americans now see the investigation as mostly about whether the president lied (48%) rather than about sex (38%), more than half (52%) say lying about a sexual relationship with Lewinsky would be less serious than lying about a government policy matter. A majority of those who think lying about sex is just as serious say Clinton should leave office if he lied.

Strong Words for Hillary

In contrast to her husband, Hillary Clinton continues to draw high marks from the public. Two-thirds of Americans (66%) say they admire Hillary Clinton’s decision to stand by her husband and nearly as many (63%) have a favorable opinion of the First Lady.

These views are also reflected in the one-word descriptions people give Hillary Clinton. While Americans continue to use many of the same words — both positive and negative — to describe her as they did two years ago, favorable mentions now substantially outnumber unfavorable ones. In sharp contrast with her husband, the five most frequently mentioned words used to describe Hillary Clinton are all positive attributes.

It’s Marriage, Not Gender

Although gender has played an influential role in Americans’ views of the Clinton Administration through much of his two terms, there are no differences between the sexes in their attitudes toward Clinton’s resignation or impeachment. Fully 76% of men and 74% of women think it would be better for the country for Clinton to finish out his term; two-thirds of both genders oppose impeachment for perjury.

This lack of difference in opinion between men and women holds up across party lines. For example, equal numbers of Republican men and women favor Clinton remaining in office (57% and 60%, respectively). Similarly, support for impeachment is the same among both GOP men and women (50% and 53%, respectively).

Although women in general do not condemn Clinton, married women have a harsher perspective. Almost half (47%) of married women think that Clinton should be impeached if he encouraged Monica Lewinsky to lie under oath; only 33% of unmarried women agree. There are no differences between married and unmarried men on this issue: just over 40% of both groups support impeachment for suborning perjury.

The only apparent gender gap concerns Hillary Clinton — and works to her benefit. The First Lady receives favorable ratings from fully 67% of women, 8 percentage points better than she does among men. This gap remains among Republicans and Independents as well: 44% of GOP women rate Mrs. Clinton favorably, compared to 38% of GOP men. Two-thirds (67%) of Independent women have a favorable opinion, compared to 58% of Independent men.

While the number of Americans who view the president favorably has fallen in recent months, his ratings remain well above those of two other players in the ongoing investigation. Just 29% of Americans hold a favorable view of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, while even fewer (14%) view Monica Lewinsky favorably. Although a majority of Republicans (57%) view Starr favorably, only 17% have a favorable opinion of Lewinsky.

The vice president’s ratings remain on par with the president’s, and largely unchanged from past months — 55% of Americans have a favorable view of Al Gore. Some 39% have a favorable opinion of House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

No Political Fallout, Yet

There are no early indications that the president’s political problems are suppressing interest in the fall elections among Democrats, as some have speculated they might. The current survey finds 36% of Democrats highly likely to cast a ballot in the mid-term elections; this is unchanged from June. Similarly, Republicans have not been emboldened by recent developments in the Clinton scandal. Some 43% of GOP adherents fall into the most likely voter category this month, compared to 44% in June.

The race for control of Congress remains tight. Among registered voters, the two parties are in a dead heat: 44% would vote Republican if the election were held today, 45% would vote Democratic. However, as was the case in the Pew Research Center’s June survey, Republicans enjoy a slight edge among the most probable voters (47% to 43%).

Despite the current controversy, most registered voters (61%) continue to say that Clinton will not be a factor in their vote for Congress this fall. Only 17% see their choice as a vote against Clinton, 20% say it will be a vote for the president. These numbers are virtually unchanged from March and June of this year. Only 33% of Republicans consider their vote for Congress a vote against Clinton, even fewer than the 41% who held this view in October 1994.

But the potential for a political impact is also evident in the new survey. While strong supporters of the president largely say they will vote Democratic and strong critics Republican, those who express a mixed view of Clinton divide evenly on the generic ballot measure: some 43% intend to vote Republican, 44% Democratic.

At this point, if members of Congress were faced with a vote on whether to begin impeachment hearings against Clinton, they would find little public support for moving forward. A majority of Americans (57%) say they would have an unfavorable opinion of members who voted in favor of beginning hearings. Only 36% would have a favorable opinion.

Media’s Grades Improve

Public evaluations of news media coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal have improved since earlier in the year. A narrow majority (55%) now says news organizations are doing an excellent or good job reporting about the allegations against Clinton. This is up substantially from 42% in March and 46% in February shortly after the story first broke. Still, a large segment of the American public (42%) thinks the media is doing only a fair or poor job covering the allegations.

Democrats and Independents are slightly more critical of the media’s coverage of the scandal, though even these groups are more likely than not to say the coverage has been excellent or good. Uncharacteristically, Republicans give the media relatively better ratings.

Americans are divided over whether the press is providing them with the information they need to make up their own minds about this issue. Half (51%) say the press is doing an excellent or good job in this regard; 47% say they are doing only a fair or poor job. But the public is more critical of the press’ objectivity. Only four-in-ten say the press is doing an excellent or good job being objective about whether or not the investigation is important for the country. In early February, a similar proportion (36%) said the press was being objective about whether or not the President was guilty of the allegations being made at the time. In each case, majorities gave the press only fair or poor ratings for objectivity.

Other opinions aside, an overwhelming majority of Americans (69%) believe the media is giving too much attention to the Clinton investigation. This is up substantially from prior surveys that asked about media coverage of the Whitewater investigation. This view, which is held by nearly all major demographic groups, has a distinctly partisan tilt. Only about half of Republicans (51%) think the media is over-covering the story, compared to 82% of Democrats. Independents come closer to Democrats in this regard: 70% say the media is giving this scandal too much attention.

Terrorism Worries

While interest in the Clinton-Lewinsky investigation ticked up during this period, U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan captured the most attention. Fully 44% of the public followed this story very closely; another 35% followed fairly closely. The explosion of a car bomb in Northern Ireland garnered much less public attention. Only 17% of the public followed the tragedy very closely. Americans are paying very little attention to the economic turmoil in Russia. Only 8% followed this story very closely.

The public overwhelmingly approved of the U.S. air strikes against terrorist sites in Afghanistan and Sudan (79% approved vs. 11% who disapproved). Republicans and Democrats endorsed the strikes with equal enthusiasm. However, Republicans were much more cynical about Clinton’s underlying motivations for embarking on this course of action. Fully 37% of Republicans said Clinton ordered the attack mainly because he wanted to turn attention away from the Monica Lewinsky affair. This compares with 27% of Independents and only 11% of Democrats who saw the strikes as a diversionary tactic. Overall, the public rejects this view, however. The vast majority of Americans (69%) believe Clinton ordered the strikes to fight terrorism, not to divert public attention.

Concern over terrorism is up somewhat in the wake of the recent air strikes. Some 47% of Americans say they worry a great deal or somewhat about terrorism when they are in public places here in the United States. This is up from 35% in April 1997 and 34% in March 1996. Nonetheless, a slim majority of Americans (52%) express little or no worry about terrorism.

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