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Bush Draws Poll Numbers, But Not Votes
Political Junkie

By Richard Morin
Washington Post Polling Director
Monday, July 31, 2000

It's been a cool summer in Washington, D.C. But there's a political mystery heating up inside the Beltway. The mystery, apparent in recent presidential polls, goes something like this: Republican Gov. George W. Bush trumps Democratic Vice President Al Gore on the issues and on candidate qualities. Bush positively chills Gore, politically speaking -- particularly on issues that Americans say they care about most. Bush also is boffo on most of the character traits that voters reputedly value.

At the same time, he is barely holding onto his slim advantage over Gore in the presidential horse race, and some polls suggest his lead is shrinking. So why isn't Bush doing much better?

My own incomplete thoughts in a moment. But first some facts.

The latest round of polls show that Bush is staying in place or losing ground to Gore. The Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week shows the race to be a statistical tie among registered voters, with a six-point lead for Bush among those most likely to vote. At best, those numbers are no better for Bush than they were last month, and a drop from earlier polls when the he enjoyed a double-digit lead among registered and likely voters.

The most striking findings in the latest Post-ABC News poll and other recent surveys involve Bush's domination of issues and character. On pocketbook issues, he enjoys an eight-point lead on handling the budget surplus, an 11-point advantage over Gore on managing the budget, 10 points on handling the economy, and a 13-point bulge on taxes. Significantly, on these issues Bush widened the gap with Gore in recent weeks. (The budget surplus issue was not asked in earlier polls).

On issues where some Democrats have viewed Bush as particularly vulnerable, the Republican also demonstrated remarkable strength. He bests Gore by a 50 percent to 35 percent margin as the candidate more trusted to deal with the death penalty, up from 46 percent to 37 percent in April. And on gun control, voters prefer Bush to Gore by a 46 percent to 38 percent ratio. In May, Gore held a similar advantage over Bush. Likewise, voters seem to prefer Bush to Gore in terms of their relative ability to pick U.S. Supreme Court Justices.

Most telling, perhaps, were findings on education, one of the top two issues in this presidential campaign. Democrats should own this issue, and perhaps as a party, they do. Gore doesn't. Gore and Bush split voters right down the middle: 43 percent prefer Gore, 43 percent favor Bush. Not even three months ago, Gore had a nine-point lead over Bush on which candidate would do the better job improving education and schools. (It's impossible from the latest Post-ABC News poll to judge whether Bush has made inroads into Gore's lead on health care. The poll found that voters preferred Gore 47 percent to 38 percent, but July marked the first time this question was asked. But a question with a slightly different wording produced a similar Gore lead in April.)

Gore trounces Bush on only two issues, but both stand relatively low down the list of voters' top priorities. The vice president leads Bush by 24 points on the environment, and by 23 points on women's issues.

On personal traits, Bush wins big most of the time. He's more likely to be viewed as the candidate who "says what he thinks" (a 19-point Bush advantage), as the candidate with the more "appealing personality" (up 15 points), the stronger leader (up 14 points), more honest and trustworthy (up 12 points), and as the candidate who would bring "needed change to Washington" (14 points). Gore scores a double-digit lead on only one trait, knowledge of world affairs.

So, the mystery: Why isn't Bush up by a million?

One reason is the economy; it's booming. Another is Bill Clinton; his job approval rating remains high. Political scientists suggest that the incumbent party's nominee stands to benefit, thus creating a natural cushion for Gore and a barrier for Bush. But something else also may be at work.

Polls continue to show that people like Bush, including many who otherwise would not vote for a Republican. Or they think they like him. Bush consistently has been more popular than his party; the Post-ABC News survey found that Democrats and independents have a more favorable view of Bush than they do of the Republican Party overall.

Some of these voters actually have seen or heard Bush and like him based on that. Others are put off by Gore. But they can't bring themselves to vote for Bush. At least not yet. Many, however, give Bush favorable responses on issues/character traits. Others punish Gore by dissing him on traits and issues, not so much because they oppose him but because they're disappointed or feel uncomfortably distant from him. Thus the apparent poor fit between the horse-race numbers and key traits and issues.

There's partial evidence of all this from a question that asked voters how strongly they support their choice. The percentage of weak Gore supporters is much larger than the percentage of weak Bush supporters, suggesting dissatisfaction with Gore that may be showing up in those issues and traits questions, but not in the horse race.

It's a mystery. Perhaps the answer will emerge after the conventions.

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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