A year before Election Day 2000, voters know what they want: a strong president with personal values and convictions worthy of respect and a Congress prepared to act effectively on the problems of health care, education and the other family issues most Americans think Washington has been neglecting.
And for the first time in a decade, aspirants for federal office next year are unlikely to face the pervasive anger that made most of the elections of the 1990s nerve-racking experiences for so many incumbents. A near-record run of upbeat economic news has deadened--if not wholly removed--the frustration that impelled many voters earlier in this decade to search out scapegoats in one party or the other.
But candidates will have to overcome deep public skepticism about a political system voters see dominated by naked partisanship and campaign cash. Persuading people to vote looms as a major challenge in itself.
As voters begin to focus on the first election of the new century--and few have a clear picture of the contenders as yet--the concerns that are uppermost on voters' minds are those on which Democrats normally are comfortable campaigning. But the No. 1 Democrat, Bill Clinton, has seeded the atmosphere with so many doubts about his presidential character that the hunger for a trustworthy successor could trump any issues on which the rival nominees choose to run.
"The next president does not have to do tremendous things," said Ray G. Klotz, a suburban Philadelphia Republican. "The country is doing very well. But we have a do-nothing Congress and a president who sticks his finger in the wind to see what the polls say. A leader should lead. I don't want to see the next president of the United States the subject of Jay Leno jokes or the target of ridicule in foreign countries."
Across the country in Burbank, Calif., 30-year-old musician Jimmy Thomas said, "The economy is fine . . . [but] I need some sincerity in the White House. I don't care if it's a Republican or Democrat."
And in Mineral Wells, Tex., Debra Clemens, 39, a Democrat who voted twice for Ross Perot, rather than "a liar like Clinton," is discouraged because neither Clinton nor Congress seems ready to help working families like hers--who gave up their health insurance last year because it was too expensive.
They are three of the dozens of potential voters interviewed during the last two weeks by Washington Post reporters traveling through swing House districts likely to determine which party controls Congress in the new century.
A set of two nationwide surveys of a total of 2,030 Americans confirmed the reporters' impressions that family issues--especially those involving health care and education--dominate the voters' agenda for the coming campaign.
Across the board, Republicans, Democrats and independents said that their single greatest concern--from a list of 51 possible worries--is that "insurance companies are making decisions about medical care that doctors and patients should be making."
Three other health issues were among the dozen that one-half to two-thirds of those polled said now cause them a great deal of worry. Those other health-related fears are that elderly Americans will be unable to afford prescription drugs; medical benefits will be reduced or eliminated by employers; and the number of uninsured Americans will rise.
Three of the 12 top concerns involve education: safety in the classrooms, the expense of college education and the overall quality of the school system.
Crime, drugs and environmental pollution have slipped from the top positions they held in a similar study eight years ago. Topping those is a new family issue--that work-related time pressures keep parents away from their children. Notably, only one pure economic issue emerged as of great concern to even half the people--the fear that good jobs will be moved overseas, leaving the dregs for U.S. workers.
When it comes to foreign policy or national security issues--ranking No. 15 and No. 22--Americans are concerned about excessive U.S. involvement overseas: that too many countries will seek economic bailouts from the United States and that American soldiers will be sent into foreign conflicts in places like Bosnia and Kosovo.
The top concerns form a voters' agenda that plays to the perceived strengths of Democrats--which may explain why the poll showed the public currently gives Democrats an 8-point lead over Republicans in a trial heat for Congress. Those same voters award Texas Gov. George W. Bush leads of 9 points over Vice President Gore and 8 points over former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley in presidential trial heats testing Bush against the Democratic rivals.
But the face-to-face interviews reinforced the cautionary sense that most Americans say they know little about the leading White House hopefuls--and even less about the men challenging Bush for the GOP nomination.
What is clear is that voters are looking for a new president who displays the qualities most of them find missing in Clinton--character, consistency and candor.
Clinton is not faulted on his job performance. Even Republicans like Angela Aldridge, a special education teacher in Wingate, N.C., and a 1996 supporter of Robert J. Dole, said, "Clinton does not have the character that should be represented by the president, but what he has done for the country has been pretty good."
But ask Americans what qualities are important to them in thinking about the next president and it is clear that the Clinton imprint on the 2000 presidential race will largely be defined by the personal scandals that have marked his tenure.
Three generations of one family were sitting on the porch of a home in Upper Dublin Township, Pa., when a Post reporter came by, asking about presidential qualities. Eleanor Norman, rocking quietly to ease her arthritic knees, answered first: "Somebody strong, who means what he says. And someone who commands respect in other countries." Her daughter, Mary Hertler, whose child was playing nearby, said: "The most important thing for me is to have a safe place for my children to grow up. But the president is important, too. We all know people make mistakes, but they should admit them. An oath should mean something. When you go to court and take an oath, it's the truth you're supposed to tell, not your own interpretation of the truth."
That theme crosses all lines--gender, race and generation. Steven Cook, a 21-year-old junior at Wingate University in North Carolina, contemplating his first vote, said Clinton "has been a good president. We ought to focus on what he's done, not on his personal affairs." Asked what he wants in the next president, he answered: "Someone strong. And honest. Someone who sticks to the point."
The poll tapped that view indirectly. It found that sentiment--ranking right behind worries over the future of Social Security and Medicare--is a concern voiced "a great deal" by 46 percent of those interviewed, that "too many political leaders lack the honesty to tell us what they really think [and] instead they just follow the polls." Exactly as many said they worry that "the moral standards of the country are not high enough."
It is clear from the interviews and the poll that the sustained period of economic growth has taken the edge off the anger at politicians that was so evident in 1990, when incumbents of both parties saw their victory margins shaved; in 1992, when President George Bush was denied a second term; and in 1994, when Democrats lost control of Congress.
Only 3 in 10 of those polled said they worry a lot that "the good economy will turn sour in the near future." And some measures of political alienation are down. The fear that "nobody is looking out for the interests of the middle class" has dropped from 52 percent in 1991 to 39 percent, and there has been an 11 percentage-point decline in the number of those very concerned that "elected leaders just don't care about people like you."
On the other hand, almost half those polled said they worry a lot that campaigns "are turning into contests over who can raise the most money instead of who would be the best president."
Kathy King, a veterinarian's wife and mother of two, who lives in Upper Dublin Township, said, "What happened to Elizabeth Dole was a real slap in the face. And it was all the money thing. . . . Every four years, whoever runs for president promises he'll really do campaign finance reform. And it never happens. It's never going to happen. None of them really want to do it."
The cynicism reflected in her comment underlines that the challenge to any candidate in this election will be as much to convince people that voting makes a difference as to persuade them to support A over B.
"I still vote," said Leila Rostich, a media relations specialist for General Instruments and a resident of the Philadelphia suburbs, "because I think voting is a responsibility and a privilege. But for people my age [thirties], there's a lot of disillusionment with politics and government, and we don't really see it changing. We need a good example out there to convince us it makes a difference."
Whatever the current horse-race polls say, the minimal level of knowledge about, and enthusiasm for, the presidential contenders is a strong reminder that this race has begun far sooner than most people are ready for it.
Sharp differences on policy may yet emerge to give the election a more conventional and partisan cast. But for now, the hunger for a trustworthy president and the eagerness for a Congress that will tackle the family-oriented issues of health care and education are so widespread as to obliterate many political distinctions.
Bradley, Gore and Bush supporters list HMOs, school violence and prescription drugs for the elderly among their very top concerns. There is relatively little variance among city-dwellers, suburbanites and rural residents. Two issues that Republicans have used in the past to draw distinctions with the Democrats--combating crime and cracking down on drugs--have declined notably in their salience since similar polls in advance of the 1992 and 1996 elections. Concern about welfare fraud and illegal immigration is lower than it was four years ago, but the interviews showed that a good many voters think that--despite welfare reform in 1996--too many people still freeload on the system.
Other matters stressed by the leading candidates--school vouchers by Bush, urban sprawl by Gore and race relations by Bradley--look like niche issues, with barely one-third of those polled saying they care a great deal about any of them. Many issues that soak up media attention--abortion, school vouchers, guns and affirmative action, for example--are far down the list of the voters' concerns.
The disconnect voters feel is blamed on two things: partisanship and campaign cash. "It seems like every time one side has a great idea, the other side shoots it down," said Bonnie Meyer, a pharmaceutical company researcher living outside Philadelphia.
And Steve Elfird, putting in a new lawn for a client of his landscaping firm in Albemarle, N.C., said, "I'm just looking for a halfway honest man, if it's possible. It's hard for anyone in that world to stay honest, with all that money being thrown around."
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane, staff writers Thomas B. Edsall, Paul Duggan and Cassandra Stern, and researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
Monday: How the campaigns respond.
WHAT WORRIES AMERICANS
With the 2000 elections one year away, The Washington Post undertook a survey to better understand Americans' concerns. More than 2,000 people were asked about 51 things that might be worrying them. Below are the top and bottom of that list of worries, ranging from intense concern about the health care system and the quality of family life, to a marked lack of concern about military spending and strict immigration policies. Respondents were asked if each item worried them a great deal, a good amount, just a little, or not at all. The items below were ranked according to the percentage of respondents who worried about each "a great deal."
TOP 10 WORRIES:
66% Insurance companies are making decisions about medical care that doctors and patients should be making.
60 Children in America are no longer safe at their own schools.
59 Elderly Americans won't be able to afford the prescription drugs they need.
56 Because of work and other pressures, parents don't have enough time to spend with their children.
55 Medical benefits that you and your family now receive will be reduced or eliminated.
55 Crime will increase.
53 A good college education is becoming too expensive.
52 Use of illegal drugs will increase.
51 The American educational system will get worse instead of better.
51 Pollution and other environmental problems will get worse.
THE LEAST OF OUR WORRIES:
14% The United States spends too much on its armed forces.
17 We will shut the door to new immigrants and the dream of a melting-pot nation will be lost.
18 Affirmative action may have gone too far to give some blacks unfair advantages over whites.
18 Vouchers for private and religious schools will erode the public school system.
19 The religious right has too much political power.
21 Labor unions have too much political power.
22 The United States doesn't spend enough on its armed forces.
22 It will become harder for a woman to obtain a legal abortion.
24 We will elect another president who will embarrass the country with scandals while in office.
25 It's becoming too hard for a law-abiding citizen to own a gun.
25 This is no longer an English-speaking nation; too many people don't know or use the language.
TOP FIVE CONCERNS BY PARTY I.D.
Concerns about health maintenance organizations top the list of worries for Republicans, Democrats and independents alike.
Republicans: Concerns about HMOs
Democrats: Concerns about HMOs
Independents: Concerns about HMOs
Republicans: School violence
Democrats: Elderly not getting medicines
Independents: School violence
Republicans: Sex and violence on TV
Democrats: Losing own medical benefits
Independents: Elderly not getting medicines
Republicans: Illegal drug use
Democrats: School violence
Independents: Educational system worsening
Republicans: Not enough family time
Democrats: Cost of college
Independents: Not enough family time/Crime
*Ranked by percentage who answered that each worried them "a great deal."
Items listed above are abbreviated versions of longer survey questions.
Figures are based on two separate Washington Post surveys conducted Oct. 13-17 and Oct. 27 -- 31. Slightly more than 1,000 randomly selected adults nationwide were interviewed by telephone for each survey. Across the two polls, respondents were asked how much they worried about a total of 51 national concerns. These concerns were culled from voter interviews as well as this year's ongoing political debate. The margin of sampling error for reported results is plus or minus three percentage points. Sampling error is only one of many potential sources of error in this or any other public opinion poll. Interviewing was conducted by ICR of Media, Pa.