Americans are paying so little attention to the early skirmishing of the 2000 campaign that half could not name a Democratic candidate for president, according to a poll released yesterday.
The stunning finding by the Pew Research Center suggests that Vice President Gore, the deputy leader of the free world, has failed to penetrate the radar screen of a huge mass of potential voters. By contrast, 37 percent of those questioned failed to name a Republican presidential candidate. Even more remarkable, the blank looks came after respondents were asked a question about Gore and George W. Bush.
Has half the country taken a nap--or are Americans just focused on matters that seem more relevant than a pack of campaigning politicians?
"People are more disengaged now than in the past because we've had an extra year of the horse race," said Andrew Kohut, the center's director. "Impeachment and the Lewinsky scandal was about Washington politics and who's going to stay in power. So it's doubly difficult to get people to pay attention to the race. There's probably a little bit of backlash."
On the who's-running question, 54 percent identified Texas Gov. Bush as a White House contender; 46 percent recalled Gore, and 16 percent named Elizabeth Dole or Bill Bradley.
Gore spokesman Chris Lehane gamely put the best face on the findings, saying that "this entire campaign is going to be about introducing the vice president as a candidate for president to the American people." (For the record, the Gore camp spent nearly $9 million toward that end through June 30.)
The poll of 1,205 adults signals increasing resentment of the way the media scrutinize the candidates, especially on personal matters. The Pew survey, conducted Sept. 1-12, followed a period of intense press coverage of questions about whether Bush used cocaine as a young man.
At one end of the scale, more than seven in 10 of those questioned say the press should report if a candidate has physically abused a spouse. Nearly two-thirds say a candidate's failure to pay income taxes should be reported. And more than six in 10 say journalists should pursue lying about one's academic or military record.
But only 23 percent say past marital infidelity should almost always be reported, while 21 percent say it should sometimes be reported. Candidates who are still fooling around get less of a pass: Nearly two-thirds of those polled say journalists should disclose if a candidate is having an affair during the campaign.
As for a candidate having used cocaine as a young adult, 35 percent say it should almost always be reported, while 40 percent say such stories should almost never be reported.
"People just don't want to hear about the private lives of politicians unless it's really horrific," Kohut said.
An interesting partisan split emerged on the question of what is newsworthy. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans, perhaps reminded of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, say news organizations should almost always report if a candidate is having an affair during the campaign. Only three in 10 Democrats agree.
But while Republicans are tougher than Democrats on most of these hypothetical scandals, the difference evaporates on past cocaine use, which people likely associate with Bush. On that issue, 36 percent of Republicans and 35 percent of Democrats say the coke question is highly newsworthy.
All told, 64 percent say that news organizations have too much influence over the campaign.
As for the horse race, Bradley has narrowed the gap by 10 points since July, but Gore still leads his Democratic rival, 58 percent to 32 percent. Bush leads the vice president in a general-election matchup, 54 percent to 39 percent. (If Pat Buchanan is added as a Reform Party candidate, Bush wins 49-35, with 10 percent for Buchanan.)
The widespread lack of interest in the campaign flies in the face of an unseasonably early start that has produced a flood of newspaper coverage. The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and USA Today ran 687 presidential campaign stories in the first eight months of this year, compared with 575 in the same period of 1995 and 392 four years before that.
Television, however, is steering a different course. According to the Tyndall Weekly Report, the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts have aired 111 minutes on the campaign during the eight-month stretch--down from 149 minutes four years ago.
Clearly, some folks are already overdosing on campaign reporting. Twenty-eight percent of those surveyed said there is too much coverage of the presidential race, up 10 points from just two months ago. And it's only six months until the New Hampshire primary.