Clinton Woes Fuel Big Voter Shift
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 1998; Page A15
The White House scandal has pushed moral values to the top of the voters' agenda and threatens to depress Democratic turnout to the point Republicans could score a big victory in the November election, two leading pollsters said yesterday.
Congressional Republicans now enjoy a 7-point lead over congressional Democrats as the party that comes closest to sharing the voters' own values. The GOP margin grows to 13 points when Republicans are contrasted with both Clinton and the Democrats.
And, Lake and Goeas agreed, the likely partisan advantage in what is expected to be a low-turnout election is tilted heavily toward voters who are anti-Clinton and likely to support the GOP, especially in open-seat or marginal races.
Their Aug. 23-25 telephone survey found that while Clinton's job approval score has remained relatively steady since their last poll, taken a week before the Lewinsky story broke last January, he has suffered a 19-point drop in the share of voters approving of him personally. The latter measure is now 26 percent approval and 62 percent disapproval.
Goeas described the electorate this way: "Only 25 percent approve of both the job Clinton is doing as president and approve of him personally. Another 30 percent approve of the job he is doing but do not approve of him personally. A solid 39 percent disapprove of both the job the president is doing and disapprove of him personally."
The propensity to vote, as best it can be measured, is heaviest among those who fault Clinton on both counts, moderate among those who give him mixed grades and weakest among those who approve of both his job and his personal character.
"In political terms, this translates into a very strong indication that Democratic turnout will be heavily suppressed in November," Goeas said, "while the Republican base will continue to be more energized, especially in key swing districts."
Lake, while holding out hope Democrats can shift the election agenda back to the issues of Social Security, health care and education, where they have a decided advantage, did not disagree with Goeas's analysis.
She, too, found concern about moral values the best predictor of the partisan congressional vote and said, "There are indications that Democratic voters, demoralized by President Clinton's problems and seeing little incentive to vote for politicians and a system teetering on the brink of moral bankruptcy, may choose to stay home on Nov. 3, while Republicans may turn out at average or higher than average levels to help cure the moral ills of politics."
Lake noted that the "gender gap" still exists, but acknowledged that men are more Republican than ever and that among white women, the Democratic lead has almost disappeared.
She also pointed out that among senior citizens, whose impact is unusually great in low-turnout elections, moral issues now have eclipsed even Social Security in importance.
"In our focus groups this year," she said, "seniors have been particularly upset by scandals including the campaign finance reform scandals. Values are now their top issue . . . but seniors give Democrats and Clinton negative marks on values."
One positive note for Democrats in the survey was that voters increasingly credit them for what has been a healthy economy. Congressional Democrats lead the GOP on improving the economy and creating jobs, but Republicans still have the advantage on holding down taxes.
The differential turnout figures were the most dramatic element of the poll. Republicans led by 3 points among all 1,000 in the sample of voters. But that lead grew to 14 points among the 41 percent considered most likely to vote -- a margin Lake said was greater than that of 1994, when the Democrats lost both the House and Senate. Noting that the Clinton saga remains unfinished, she said, "We may not have seen it [the turnout problem] bottom out yet."
Rep. Martin Frost (Tex.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement, "We have always anticipated that 1998 would be a low-turnout year." He said Democrats will win with "candidates who promise results on issues of genuine local concern."
But Rep. John Linder (Ga.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said: "We [Republicans] went through this with Watergate in 1974. It will be very difficult for them [Democrats] to motivate their people to vote."
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