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    What America Thinks
    All Eyes on Hillary

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, August 30, 1999

    Hillary Rodham Clinton continues to listen as New York and the rest of the country talks about her expected bid for the Senate seat being vacated by Democratic stalwart Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

    The early polls suggest she's more than competitive with New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the likely Republican nominee. And she remains hugely popular outside New York, which is crucial to raising the $25 million or so that likely will be needed to win. Recent polls suggest that about six in 10 Americans approve of Bill Clinton's performance as president, nearly identical to the percentage who say they have a favorable view of Hillary Clinton.

    But how much is Hillary's popularity based on the fact that husband Bill remains such a hit with the American people? Virtually nothing, say two Harvard researchers who have tracked Hillary and Bill's standing with the public. "It is remarkable that Hillary Clinton's popularity is independent of her husband's, and vice versa," wrote Barry Burden and Anthony Mughan in the latest issue of Public Opinion Quarterly. "Hillary Clinton is her own person in the eyes of the American public and not a pale reflection of a highly visible husband."

    These researchers found that Hillary's popularity moved largely in response to television news and scandal stories about her. (Changes in the unemployment rate had a far more modest impact on Hillary's rating, though this effect likely was an indirect reflection of attitudes toward her husband, Burden and Mughan speculated.)

    To capture the effect of media coverage, they produced a monthly tally of stories about Hillary that appeared in major American newspapers, and classified them into those that involved "scandal" (Whitewater, Travelgate, Vince Foster's suicide, etc.) and non-scandal news accounts. They made similar counts and classifications of Hillary stories broadcast by ABC, CBS and NBC during the first five years of the Clinton presidency.

    Not unexpectedly, "the larger the number of scandal stories in the printed press, the lower the approval for Mrs. Clinton." Significantly, they found that both negative and positive stories about the first lady had an impact – but bad news printed about her had nearly twice the affect as good stories on her overall popularity. (For those who must know the precise effect, their statistical model suggests that every additional 10 scandal stories was associated with a 1 percentage-point decline in her job approval rating, while it took about 25 non-scandal stories to produce a one-point bump up.)

    Scandal stories broadcast on the major TV networks also affected her popularity: They made her more popular with Americans. In fact, the positive effect of scandal coverage was nearly as large as the negative impact of print stories: Every additional 11 TV stories broadcast in a month was associated with a one-point increase in her popularity.

    "This would seem to be another example of the television image carrying more weight with the public than the content of the story," they noted. Non-scandal stories had no statistically significant impact on her job rating. Are public attitudes toward first ladies always independent of views of their husband's job performance?

    "Unfortunately there is no way of knowing whether mutual independence was the norm before the Clinton presidency since polling reorganizations rarely asked the public for its evaluation of the president's wife in her role as the first lady."

    Yeah, Right

    In an ABC News survey on Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush and cocaine, one in eight Americans – 13 percent – described themselves as "irresponsible" when they were in their late twenties, while 86 percent said they were "mature and responsible."

    Bush has acknowledged being a bit of a carouser and party boy as a young man. He has claimed he has not used illegal drugs since he was 28 but won't say whether he indulged before then.

    About half – 53 percent – of those interviewed in the ABC poll agree that he shouldn't have to answer about drug use in his early or mid-twenties. And more than eight in 10 say it wouldn't affect their vote one way or another if he did, while one in 10 said it would make them less likely to support Bush.

    For the record, 8 percent of those surveyed acknowledged that they have used cocaine sometime in their lives.

    The Fix is In

    Americans are finally catching on to pro wrestling. In a recent Gallup survey, respondents were asked if they believed that "most, a few, or not any professional wrestling matches are fixed." The overwhelming majority – 82 percent – believed that most matches were rigged. When that same question was first asked by Gallup in 1951, only one in six – 17 percent – said the fix was in.

    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 .

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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