Texas Gov. George W. Bush's personal popularity is masking deep divisions within the Republican Party and an eroding base of popular support for the GOP, according to a national poll released yesterday.
The survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press also found that "a hangover from the scandals of the Clinton administration" is jeopardizing Democratic chances of retaining the White House with either Vice President Gore or former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley at the top of the ticket in 2000.
Bush, who leads in polls for the GOP presidential nomination, draws strong support from three types of Republicans who disagree among themselves on many issues, and he "also gets the support of independent voters at both end of the economic spectrum," the survey said.
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, commented that the in-depth look at the values and attitudes of a cross-section of Americans had a "back to the future" quality, marked by a return to centrism and political moderation, as prosperity softens the voter anger that was notable in similar studies in 1987 and 1994. The conclusions are based on three separate surveys, taken between July and October and involving one or more interviews with almost 5,000 people.
"The middle of the electorate is not dominated by angry, economically stressed voters whose allegiances are up for grabs, as we found in 1994," Kohut reported. "Rather, the most important swing constituency is among the least angry, most moderate and most financially content segment of the voting public."
Those "New Prosperity Independents" are younger, better-educated and less religious than the average American, fascinated by the Internet and the stock market, proponents of gun control and lower capital gains taxes, and ready to consider a third party. Making up one-ninth of the potential electorate, they gave Clinton a slight edge over Robert J. Dole in 1996. But currently, they favor Bush over Gore by 67 percent to 24 percent. Bradley comes closer, but still trails Bush 58 percent to 32 percent in this key group.
More surprisingly, Bush leads Gore 56 percent to 31 percent among the "Disaffecteds," a less-educated, lower-income group of independents, distrustful of politics and politicians. Dole finished third among these voters in 1996, trailing both Clinton and Ross Perot, but Bush is running well among them--at least for now. Bradley fares no better with them than Gore does.
The survey found Bush winning between 87 percent and 96 percent of the votes over Gore among three distinctly different groups of Republicans: "Staunch Conservatives," a largely white male group taking conservative positions on economic, social and international questions; "Populist Conservatives," highly religious and socially conservative but less friendly to business; and "Moderate Republicans," an affluent group, less critical of government and more attuned to the environment.
But those Republicans were not nearly so unified on issues--or on support of Republicans in Congress. Asked about their inclinations in voting for Congress, 15 percent of the Moderate Republicans and 10 percent of the Populist Republicans say they prefer the Democrats. None of the four Democratic constituencies has a such a large defection rate.
Overall, Democrats lead Republicans in that generic congressional test by 6 percentage points--a margin similar to that reported in other recent polls. Democrats also enjoy their biggest lead over Republicans in basic voter identification in at least a decade--7 points--although both are outnumbered by self-identified Independents, Kohut reported.
He attributes the erosion of Republican support mainly to public disapproval of the tactics and policies of former House speaker Newt Gingrich, saying the drop-off was notable "after the GOP was blamed for an unpopular government shutdown. The Republican revolution [that captured Congress in 1994] had a much more significant and long-lasting impact on party affiliation than did the GOP's unpopular efforts to impeach Clinton. Party affiliation figures have remained remarkably stable since the historic events of 1998 and early 1999."
The gender gap remains alive and well, with Republicans drawing their strongest support among men age 30 to 49, and with Democrats' most loyal supporters being women over 50. Bad news for the GOP is that much of the falloff in party identification was among people under 30. In that age group, Republicans fell 8 points among men and 6 points among women between 1994 and 1999. The only age group in which Republicans gained was the over 65s--and there by only 2 points.
Confirming the findings of other polls, Kohut reported that the heart of Gore's problem is a reputation as a weak leader. In every voter group except low-income, heavily minority Democrats, Bush is rated a stronger leader than Gore. The vice president's other handicap is that seven out of 10 Americans--including majorities of self-identified Democrats--say they are tired of the problems associated with the Clinton administration.