Education Is First in Voter Priorities
By Dan Balz and Claudia Deane
But two issues that have consumed considerable time and energy in Washington -- campaign finance reform and tobacco legislation -- rank relatively low in voter preference.
The public's priorities already are shaping campaign rhetoric and television commercials around the country. Over the next few months, several of those isssues will dominate the congressional agenda as both parties jockey for position in the fall.
Democrats hold the advantage in public confidence in several key issues, according to the poll. But Republicans are working in Congress to improve their standing on them, particularly health care and education.
Four months before the elections, the American people continue to show their contentment with the state of the national economy and with their elected leaders in Washington. Four in five voters say the economy is good, according to the poll, and half believe the country is moving in the right direction.
President Clinton's approval rating remains strong, at 63 percent, despite six months of scandal news, but the poll indicates that the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation has taken a toll on the president's personal reputation -- and on the standing of his principal antagonist, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
About as many voters approve of the job Congress is doing as disapprove (46 percent to 45 percent). Congressional approval has slipped a bit since early in the year, but overall still is better than at any time since Clinton was elected. Asked to rate the job their own representative in the House is doing, 70 percent of those surveyed said they approved.
The findings are based on a random telephone sample of 1,511 adults and was conducted from Thursday through Sunday. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The poll underscored why virtually every candidate running for office this year is talking about improving the nation's schools. Four in five Americans called education an important issue, and slightly more than one in three said it could be the deciding issue when they vote in November.
But other issues rank high in importance. About two in three Americans surveyed cited Social Security, tax reform, crime and health care as issues of importance to them this fall. The broad issue of "moral decline" also troubles many people, according to the poll. Slightly fewer than six in 10 said it would be important in their vote this fall.
The lack of interest in campaign finance and teenage smoking was equally striking. Just four in 10 cited teenage smoking and only one in three listed campaign finance reform as very important. Even more telling, only one in 10 said those issues would be the decisive issue in determining their vote.
But these national issues will play out in unpredictable ways in what is shaping up as a series of intensely fought local campaigns. Some issues that don't show up as important nationally could be crucial in a specific race.
Democrats hold a clear edge over Republicans in public confidence to deal with education, protecting Social Security and the economy. The public also has more confidence in Democrats to protect the rights of patients, an issue with enough potency to cause Republicans in Congress to draft their own legislation that will be debated this month.
Republicans hold a growing advantage on the broad issue of moral values. They have the edge on overhauling the tax system. Neither party has the advantage on the issue of crime, an issue that until Clinton's presidency was a clear winner for the GOP.
Democrats hope to use their advantage on issues to gain seats in the House this November, although their prospects for recapturing control have diminished in the past month, according to political analysts in both parties. Asked whether they are likely to support a Democrat or Republican for the House in November, those registered voters who were surveyed split evenly: 47 percent said Democrat, 45 percent said Republican.
The Post-ABC poll demonstrates how much the public's opinion is divided on Clinton the president and Clinton the person. Two in three surveyed approve of his handling of the economy -- the highest this has been during Clinton's tenure -- and a majority (54 percent) approve of how he has handled foreign policy. Six in 10 say he is a strong leader.
But just one in three say Clinton is honest and trustworthy, and a slightly smaller percentage believe he has high personal moral and ethical standards. A majority of Democrats believe the president is honest and trustworthy, but even Democrats are evenly split on the question of his personal moral standards.
Those surveyed also judge Clinton's integrity harshly compared with recent past presidents. Four years ago, 40 percent said he was more honest than other presidents, while 25 percent said he was less honest. Today, 20 percent say he is more honest and 44 percent say he is less honest.
On the specifics of the scandal that has occupied the White House for most of this year, 61 percent surveyed, including a plurality of Democrats, said they believed that Clinton had an affair with Lewinsky, a former White House intern. Just two in 10 said he did not, with the rest undecided. Almost as many who believe an affair occurred (57 percent) said they believed Clinton has lied about it under oath.
But a majority said that even if Clinton lied under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky, he should not be impeached. If the independent counsel determined that Clinton not only lied about the relationship but encouraged Lewinsky to lie about it as well, the public remains divided over what Congress should do: 45 percent said he should be impeached, 48 percent said he should not be impeached.
By better than two to one, the American people believe Clinton should be willing to testify before Starr's grand jury about the relationship -- even large portions of those who think he is innocent of any wrongdoing. But a majority (54 percent) said Secret Service agents should not be required to testify about the president's activities before the grand jury.
Public confidence in Starr's investigation is low. Just one in three approve of how he has conducted the investigation, and six in 10 said Starr's main goal is to hurt Clinton, not to find the truth. A majority (56 percent) said Starr should drop the whole investigation.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company