The electorate is far more undecided about the 2000 presidential candidates than most political opinion polls have shown, according to a survey conducted by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
When voters were offered the option "haven't picked a candidate yet" along with the list of Republican and Democratic presidential candidates cited in the poll, more than 64 percent of respondents described themselves as undecided; 16.2 percent said they support Texas Gov. George W. Bush, 6.4 percent Vice President Gore, 5.4 percent former senator Bill Bradley, and 2 percent Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The other candidates were below 1 percent support.
"If you want to know what Americans are thinking about this election, we've at least got to give them the option of telling us that they haven't been thinking about it," said Thomas Patterson, Bradlee professor of government and the press, acting director of the Shorenstein center and co-director of the voter project.
The center, which is part of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, also found that only a fraction of voters have any idea of the candidates' stands on key issues. At this point, very few voters are paying serious attention to the contests for the GOP and Democratic nominations, most describe the campaign as "boring," and a slight majority describe the process as "uninformative," the poll found.
Gore has campaigned on his opposition to private school vouchers, using the issue as a way to stress differences between himself and Bradley, who voted for a pilot voucher program. When voters were asked if they knew whether Gore supported or opposed vouchers, just over 81 percent said they did not know. Of the 18 percent claiming to know Gore's position, more than half, 10.6 percent of all those surveyed, got it wrong, and only 7.8 percent gave the right answer.
In contrast to many newspaper polls, the Shorenstein center survey describes a far more fluid electorate, open to persuasion and in no way firmly committed to any candidate.
A Washington Post poll published Nov. 11, for example, asked voters to choose between Gore and Bradley, on the Democratic side, or among Bush, publisher Steve Forbes, McCain, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) or conservative activists Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes on the GOP side. When not explicitly offered the opportunity to say uncommitted at this time, less than 15 percent of the voters said they were undecided, or opposed to all the candidates.
Through weekly surveys, the Shorenstein center project plans to develop a "voter involvement index" in an attempt to see what events, controversies and other developments spark interest in the campaign, and what works to accelerate the apparent decline in voter involvement in recent years.
"The [index] changes will tell us what people like about the campaign--and therefore what should be preserved--and what they don't like--and therefore what might be changed," Patterson said. Co-director Marvin Kalb, executive director of the center's Washington office, said "elections are punctuated by moments when the citizens sit up, take notice, and actively listen, learn, and decide. . . . These moments are the key."