Clinton-Weary Public Has Doubts About Gore
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 8, 1999; Page A1
Strong doubts about Vice President Gore's leadership capabilities and increased desire for change in Washington have combined to shape the early stages of the 2000 presidential campaign and given the candidacy of Texas Gov. George W. Bush a significant boost, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
President Clinton appears to have worn out his welcome with many Americans. More than half of those surveyed (53 percent) said they are "just plain tired" of Clinton, a view expressed by many political independents and moderates, two swing groups that will be crucial in determining the outcome of next year's election.
Voters do not hold Gore personally responsible for Clinton's scandal-plagued presidency – 83 percent of those surveyed said it is "not fair to blame Al Gore" for Clinton's mistakes. But Gore appears to have suffered from his own performance in office, with a majority (54 percent) saying they did not agree that they have more confidence in Gore because of his service as Clinton's vice president.
Over the past six months, there has been a noticeable increase in the percentage of Americans who say they want the next president to take the country in a new direction. Last spring, a clear majority said they wanted to stay on the course Clinton has been following, but now the country is evenly divided on that issue.
The issue of "Clinton fatigue" is a closely watched – and vigorously debated – phenomenon as the presidential campaign of 2000 unfolds. Some earlier polls have found clear evidence that a scandal-weary public will be happy to see the Clinton presidency end.
The new Post-ABC poll confirms broad weariness with a president who has a high job approval rating but low personal standing following a succession of scandals that culminated in his impeachment last year.
The poll findings represent a double dose of bad news for the vice president. Gore must convince skeptical voters that he has the attributes they want in the next president while defending the administration at a time when there are signs the public is ready for a change in the White House.
Bush, on the other hand, has made a positive first impression on the American people. The second-term governor holds a whopping advantage over Gore on who would be a strong leader. On that question, 70 percent said the characterization fit Bush, while only 38 percent said it fit Gore. Bush also enjoys a decisive edge on who would bring "needed change" to Washington, with 56 percent saying Bush and only 34 percent saying Gore.
Just as significant, Bush suffers far less than other Republicans from criticism that is commonly directed at many GOP candidates – that they are out of touch with ordinary Americans and favor the rich in their policies. At this point, nearly three in five Americans say Bush's views on most issues are "just about right."
But Bush still is a relatively unknown commodity to most Americans: Seven in 10 said they want to know more about him.
The national poll of 1,526 randomly selected adults was conducted Aug. 30 to Sept. 2. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Many Republican analysts believe strongly that Clinton will be a powerful drag on Gore's candidacy. Democrats say that while there is some exhaustion with the Clinton presidency now, it is not related to scandal and won't significantly hurt Gore in the long run. But even they acknowledge there may be hunger for change after eight years of Clinton and Gore.
Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University, said that while the reasons voters are tired of Clinton may be unique, the voters' attitude is not surprising given that Clinton has been in office 6½ years. "At some level, people seem to sense that whatever energy and ideas the party in power came in with are gone, and it's time to look for a new direction," Abramowitz said. "This seems to be the case whatever party is in office." Thus "Clinton fatigue is real, a specific instance of this general phenomenon," he said.
Abramowitz has analyzed the factors that help and hurt presidential candidates. He estimates that public desire for change after two terms costs the nominee of the incumbent party about 4 percentage points in the general election, a potentially significant hurdle in an otherwise closely contested race.
Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, compared Clinton's situation with those of two other two-term presidents, Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower. "In all cases, [the phenomenon] has made life more difficult for their vice presidents," he said. "But there is also a pattern after the end of two terms of something of a comeback. Reagan came back at the end [of his presidency], as did Eisenhower."
Fred Steeper, a Republican pollster who is working for Bush's campaign, said Clinton's continuing high unfavorable ratings and the persistence of Bush's and Elizabeth Dole's lead over Gore in early trial heats have persuaded him that Clinton fatigue is real.
"Sometimes you try to figure out the meaning of an election cycle, what's it going to be about. A year out is usually too early to know what it is," Steeper said. "This one right now has a formation to it and it's about expunging this sense of disgust that people have with the White House. All of which reminds me of Watergate."
Gore's advisers say they don't believe Clinton fatigue will become a major factor in the general election and argue that Gore's problems are as much related to the constraints of being a vice president as they are to public disgust with Clinton. But in any case, one adviser said, Gore is not running as a continuation of Clinton. "We're not running a campaign that says 'four more years,'" the adviser said.
A senior adviser to Bush said: "You would expect Republican voters, because of ideological reasons, to react against Clinton, but what is interesting and dangerous for the Democrats is this has affected the independent voters. Independent voters are very strongly reacting."
The latest Post-ABC News poll found both Gore and Bush the overwhelming choice of their parties' voters to become the eventual nominees, with both seeing their margins increase over the summer.
Among all self-identified Democrats, Gore leads his lone rival, former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, by 69 percent to 24 percent. Among Republicans, Bush is the favorite of 60 percent of those surveyed. Elizabeth Dole was second with 15 percent and the rest of the GOP field was in single digits.
Bush also has maintained his margin over Gore when the two are matched in a hypothetical general election contest, with Bush favored by 56 percent and Gore favored by 37 percent.
Compared with previous years, the public does not appear unhappy with the prospect of a Gore-Bush contest in 2000. Today, more than six in 10 say they would be satisfied if Bush and Gore are the nominees. In 1995, barely half of all voters said they were satisfied with the prospects of a Clinton-Robert J. Dole race.
One bright spot for Gore is that Clinton's personal problems have not tarnished the vice president's Boy Scout image.
Roughly three in four people said both he and Bush would uphold the dignity of the presidency, and better than two in three (70 percent) said he has high personal moral and ethical standards.
Not surprisingly, given his role as Clinton's No. 2, Gore has a higher rating than Bush on the experience a president needs. But Gore and Bush are judged roughly equal on whether they "can be trusted in a crisis." And almost two in three Americans (66 percent) said Bush is a safe choice for president, while just 53 percent said the same for Gore.
Those surveyed judge Bush superior to Gore on a variety of other attributes as well. Those include keeping the economy strong, having new ideas, having the personality and temperament to be an effective president, leadership and bringing change to Washington.
Unfavorable impressions of Gore have risen throughout the year. In the latest poll, 50 percent said they have a favorable impression of the vice president, while 40 percent said their impression is unfavorable.
Bush's unfavorable percentage has risen to 23 percent, with 61 percent saying they have a favorable impression. And more than half said Gore is boring, while roughly two in three said Bush seems interesting.
Gore's association with Clinton may be a plus in his bid to win the Democratic nomination, but as he looks ahead to a possible general election contest with Bush, it could weigh him down among the independent and swing voters who will decide the outcome.
Fifty-five percent of all self-described political independents and half of all moderates said they were tired of Clinton.
Responses to this question track fairly closely with current vote preferences among political independents. Among independents who said they're tired of Clinton, seven in 10 support Bush. But among those who claim not to be weary of Clinton, Gore holds a modest lead over the Republican.
Gore appears to have been hurt by his own actions as Clinton's vice president, and one thing that seems to stick in people's minds is Gore's failure to speak out more forcefully about Clinton's behavior during the Lewinsky scandal.
"It's not Gore's fault what Clinton did," said Alma Berghaier, a retired office worker from Somers Point, N.J. "But I don't think he's a very forceful man. I don't get that strong feeling from Gore. If he would have spoken out, he would have done a lot for himself."
Assistant director of polling Claudia Deane contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company