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    What America Thinks
    Psst! There's a Campaign On

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, June 21, 1999

    What if they held a presidential election and nobody came? That's exactly what is happening right now, as Campaign 2000 explodes all around us – but still far out of earshot of voters.

    That's what my gut has been telling me for weeks. But talking guts are notoriously unreliable – and perhaps uniquely unreliable this political season, what with a front-loaded primary season that's changed the pace and tone of the 2000 presidential campaign.

    So it was instructive to see a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press that found nobody's paying attention to presidential politicking.

    Only one in eight voters – 13 percent – said they're currently following the presidential election "very closely," while 57 percent aren't following it closely at all, according to the poll released last Wednesday.

    The poll found that only about a third of all registered voters could associate an issue or policy position with Vice President Al Gore. Even fewer could identify a position taken by Texas Republican Gov. George W. Bush, former New Jersey Democratic senator Bill Bradley or Bush's leading challenger, Elizabeth Dole, says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.

    "The early presidential primary season may have front-loaded candidate announcements, political advertising and the media roadshow, but it's all background noise to the average American voter," concludes Kohut and the researchers at Pew. "Nearly two-thirds of the public is paying little or no attention to the 2000 election, and knowledge of the presidential candidates and opinions about them are little changed since February."

    Pew analysts found that disinterest in the presidential campaign is "widespread," apparent among men and women, blacks and whites, among college graduates as well as those who didn't go beyond high school. "Interest is somewhat above average among Republicans, who will be selecting a nominee from a crowded field of potential candidates," analysts said. "Almost one in five Republicans are following election news stories very closely, compared to 10 percent of Democrats and just 7 percent of independents."

    But it's not just presidential politics that's putting everyone to sleep. While the media goes knock-kneed over Hillary Rodham Clinton's apparent Senate bid in New York, few Americans are watching Hillary. Half of those voters interviewed said they weren't following news about her Senate run, while one in six said they were following the race very closely, Pew found. Of course, lack of public interest isn't stopping Pew or anybody else from polling the daylights out of the early-blooming 2000 presidential race.

    Just as Gore made it official last week that he's in, a flurry of polls greeted his announcement. It was doubtful that Gore greeted the polls. The surveys consistently found that Gore entered the campaign comfortably ahead of his Democratic rivals but badly trailing Republican front-runner Bush.

    In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, Bush claimed 53 percent of the hypothetical vote while Gore was the choice of 36 percent of those surveyed. Other polls released recently also have found Bush with comfortable leads ranging from 13 points (Gallup for USA Today and CNN) to an eye-popping 32 percentage points (Fox News).

    Even the bad news for Bush is good: Like all recent Republican presidential candidates, he's less popular with women than he is among men. Still, Bush has a 50 percent to 39 percent advantage over Gore among women, while men support him by a 56 percent to 33 percent margin. In a hypothetical Democratic primary, Gore claims two-thirds of the vote and holds better than a two-to-one advantage over his nearest challenger, Bill Bradley.

    The survey also suggests that the Republican front-runner's early advantage is not merely broad but also deep. Seven in 10 Bush voters say they're certain to vote for him while fewer Gore voters – 64 percent – are as deeply committed to their candidate. The differences are small but troubling for Gore. Historically, it's the candidate with the biggest lead who has the softest support. The fact that Gore enters the race with a less committed base of support means he faces the double challenge of solidifying his base while he attempts to woo voters away from Bush.

    The Pew survey underscored Gore's early vulnerability. Nearly seven in 10 voters – 69 percent – said there's at least some chance that they will vote for Bush, compared with 54 percent for Gore. And 43 percent said the next president should "have policies similar to the Clinton administration" – down from 54 percent in February.

    The latest Post-ABC News poll suggests that Gore officially enters the race viewed by the public as a weak leader who lacks charisma and doesn't understand the needs of common people. Americans remain divided over whether Gore "understands the problems of people like you": 44 percent say he does, but an equal proportion disagree. While two out of three Democrats say Gore understands their problems, only a third of all self-described political independents and three in 10 Republicans agree.

    Gore has yet to emerge as a strong leader. Despite his recent attempts to move out from President Clinton's shadow, the survey found the percentage of Americans who view him as a weak leader has increased from 47 percent in March to 51 percent in the most recent poll. Once again Gore fares poorly among independents: Only 31 percent of these voters say Gore is a strong leader while 59 percent disagree.

    And half the country still says Gore is boring, a view expressed by more than a third of all Democrats and majorities of Republicans and independents.

    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 1999 The Washington Post Company

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