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Voters Say Bush Is No Lightweight
Political Junkie

By Richard Morin
Washington Post Polling Director
Monday, April 3, 2000

Journalists, take notes: Americans do not think that George W. Bush is dumb, at least not yet; voters do not think that Bush is an immature lightweight lacking the gravitas to lead the nation, at least not yet; the electorate is perfectly satisfied, thank you, with a presidential contest that features Texas Gov. Bush as the Republican presidential nominee and Vice President Al Gore as the Democratic standard-bearer. At least they are for now.

Time once again to truth-squad the political press corps. That's a full-time job in most election years, particularly so this campaign season. Here's a quick look at those three pieces of dubious wisdom that continue to surface in media reports on this presidential campaign.

For months now, naughty little stories have implied or flatly asserted that voters question whether Bush has the smarts to be president. And for months now, a succession of public opinion polls have told us how voters actually feel about Bush's brainpower: He's plenty smart.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll of 1,001 randomly selected adults conducted after Bush soundly thrashed his leading rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain on Super Tuesday, found surprising consensus about Bush's intellectual abilities.

According to the poll, three in four Americans–75 percent–agree that Bush "is very intelligent." That's virtually identical to the 77 percent who said Gore possesses the right mental stuff.

What's more, even a majority of self-described Democrats believe Bush is bright: 67 percent said he's "very intelligent," as did 89 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of independents. Among his fellow college grads, seven in 10 said he's smart.

Significantly, the public's verdict on Bush's intellectual capacity has changed hardly a jot over the campaign season: In December, 77 percent said Bush was bright. Even among those who say they're "closely following" the campaign, 72 percent don't doubt his intelligence.

Nor is Bush widely viewed as an airhead lacking his father's depth. Seven in 10 Americans said he's "mature enough to take on the responsibilities of the presidency," including once again a majority of Democrats and independents.

The problem, of course, is that too many journalists are talking and writing as if Bush's dullness is a given, that the public is concerned about it and that the Bush brains gap poses a real threat to GOP chances to win the White House. Not true, the polling data suggest. That's not to say Bush isn't dumb as a stump or doesn't lack the capacity for mature judgment. Perhaps he is and does. But so far, voters are unconvinced, either because they've rejected the evidence offered in the media or because they are unaware of the particulars.

The media's misfires go beyond issues of Bush's intelligence or maturity. Even before the dust settled on Super Tuesday, the media already declared itself to be officially bored with this campaign, recoiling in horror at the thought of the now-inevitable Bush-Gore matchup and drenching their laptops with tears over what might have been.

Voters, however, are anything but dissatisfied. Two in three–68 percent–said they would be perfectly happy with a Gore-Bush race–and that's up from 64 percent in October and 55 percent last July.

In fact, the available evidence suggests that voters are far more satisfied with their choices this year than they were four years ago: In November 1995, barely half–55 percent–of those interviewed said they would be satisfied with a race featuring President Clinton and former Republican Sen. Robert Dole, the eventual GOP nominee.

Other recent surveys confirm the Post-ABC finding. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found "little indication that voters have been turned off by the outcome of the primaries, or are any more critical of the process this year than at comparable points in previous election cycles," wrote Pew's Andrew Kohut. "In fact, voters are more satisfied with the choices they face in the fall than they were at this stage four and eight years ago."

(That doesn't mean voters are happier with the process: Only 41 percent said that this year's presidential primaries have been a good way to determine the best qualified candidates. But even that dismal mark is relatively good news: "The process is ratedly slightly higher than it was in either 1996 or 1992, when nearly 60 percent of Americans said the primaries didn't do a good job selecting the nominees," Kohut reported.)

The dangers posed by these disconnects are obvious. They further isolate the media from mainstream America. It creates the impression that reporters are overly cynical, mean-spirited and, in the case of Bush, biased against him. More importantly, when the media's assertions about what the public thinks fail to match what the public is actually thinking, the credibility of the media, already at record lows, can only suffer.

Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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