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June 22, 2000 Contact: Melissa Ring (617) 496-9761

Silent Spring: The Campaign that Wasn't, at Least for the Voters

Voter Involvement Index
Candidate Knowledge Questions
Survey Methodology

Since the decisive Super Tuesday primaries in early March, most Americans have been paying little attention to the presidential campaign. As a result, they remain poorly informed about the candidates' positions on key issues and have learned little from the recent months of the campaign.

The Shorenstein Center weekly national poll has been tracking the public's knowledge of the candidates' positions on twelve issues six for George W. Bush and six for Al Gore. Although both Bush and Gore continue to outline new policy proposals nearly every week, Americans are no better informed about the candidates' positions today than they were many weeks ago. This is the case for both candidates on every issue surveyed regardless of the amount of attention paid to it by the candidates and the media.

The public knows as much about Bush's positions as Gore's positions, even though Gore has been in the national spotlight much longer. But Americans do not know very much about either candidate's positions. In the most recent Shorenstein weekly poll, 32% percent of the respondents were unable to identify any of the twelve issue positions. Another 21% percent accurately identified only one or two positions. Only 23% percent were able to identify correctly at least half of the twelve issue positions.

  Voter Involvement Index
June 14-19 19%
June 7-11 21%
May 31-June 4 20%
May 24-28 21%
May 17-21 16%
May 24-28 21%
May 17-21 16%
Source: Shorenstein Center Poll
Sampling error: ±6%

Some groups are better informed about the issues than other groups, as could be expected since these groups also differ in their degree of attention to the campaign. Older Americans know more than younger ones, men more than women, and the better educated more than the less educated. No demographic group, however, could be described as highly informed about the issues at this point in the 2000 campaign. Among the college educated, for example, only 36% percent were able to identify half or more of the candidates' issue positions accurately in the most recent Shorenstein Center poll.

The public's issue knowledge has changed very little during the nine consecutive weeks that the battery of issue questions has been asked in the Shorenstein Center poll. Throughout this period, most Americans said they were paying little or no attention to the campaign. The news media have also paid relatively little attention to it. Compared with the 1996 election, for example, there has been a decline of more than 30 percent in campaign coverage on the networks' evening newscasts. "We've witnessed a political Silent Spring," says Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project, of which the Shorenstein Center weekly poll is a component. "After Super Tuesday, Americans and the news media took a break from the campaign, raising the question of whether a year-long campaign is desirable. Is there any good reason why the first primary this year was held in early February rather than, say, in April or May?"

The results reported here are from nationwide telephone surveys of approximately 1,000 adults conducted November 14, 1999 June 19, 2000. The surveys have a sampling error of ±3%. The Vanishing Voter Project is a study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Funding for the project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The project is co-directed by Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, and by Marvin Kalb, Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's office in Washington.

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