Many Americans Have Yet to Choose a Presidential Candidate
Conventions Could be Decisive in Election's Outcome
More than a third of adult Americans say they have not yet picked a presidential candidate. If recent elections are a guide, the party conventions could well be the decisive moment in the 2000 presidential campaign.
According to the latest Shorenstein Center weekly national poll, 34% of Americans claim they haven't picked a candidate yet and do not lean toward either Bush or Gore at this time in the campaign. This finding is at odds with many national surveys, which show only a small percentage of uncommitted voters. But these surveys nearly force respondents into a choice by reading them the names of George W. Bush and Al Gore and asking them to select one. The Shorenstein Center poll posed the question differently: "Which presidential candidate do you support at this time, or haven't you picked a candidate yet?" The respondents who said "no candidate yet" were then asked whether they leaned towards one of the presidential candidates.
Many of the 34% of adults currently uncommitted to a candidate are likely to stay home on Election Day. Nevertheless, even among people who are registered and likely to vote in November, the proportion of undecideds is still quite high 30%.
In past elections when there have been many undecided or weakly committed voters a few weeks before the national party conventions, the conventions have been a turning point in the campaign. In 1988, for example, Michael Dukakis had a 15 percentage point lead heading into the conventions. When they were over, he was 15 points behind and never caught up. In 1992, Bill Clinton trailed George Bush badly before the conventions. When they ended, he had a lead that proved insurmountable.
In fact, since John Kennedy's narrow victory in 1960, no candidate who has trailed after the conventions has won the presidential election. "Although the televised general election debates get more attention from the press, the conventions have a bigger impact on the vote," says Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard's Kennedy School and co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project, of which the Shorenstein Center poll is a component. "There is no great mystery to the 'bounce' in the polls that nominees get from their conventions it is due to the huge number of undecided voters who make up their minds as a result of what they see and hear during the convention period."
The 2000 conventions appear to be shaping up as battles for the support of Independent and Democratic voters. Gore is attracting few Republican identifiers. Bush's support among self-identified Democrats is no greater, but Democrats are more likely than Republicans to be undecided (35% to 22%). The proportion of undecided voters is highest among self-identified Independents (41%). "Other polls have suggested that Independents are the key swing group," says Tami Buhr, Shorenstein Center research coordinator. "Our poll also identifies Democrats. The Democratic convention could play a key role in bringing these voters home. Failing that, Gore may not be able to recover."
The results reported here are from nationwide telephone surveys of approximately 1,000 adults conducted November 14, 1999 July 2, 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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