Debates Boost Issue Awareness Slightly, But Most Americans Are Still Uninformed About Candidates' Positions
Americans' recognition of the issue positions of presidential nominees George W. Bush and Al Gore rose with the broadcast of their three televised debates. This was the first measurable increase in the public's issue awareness since the national party conventions in August. The public, however, remains largely uniformed about what the candidates propose to do if elected.
The Shorenstein Center's weekly national polls have measured issue awareness by asking respondents to identify Gore and Bush's positions on 12 key issues. During the four weeks surrounding the summer party conventions, the public's knowledge of Bush and Gore's issue stands improved substantially, only to retreat when policy issues gave way to news coverage of a series of candidate gaffes, such as Bush's off-mike comment about New York Times reporter Adam Clymer. Since the first presidential debate on October 3, however, there has been a 20% increase in people's ability to identify correctly Bush and Gore's positions. "Once again, public awareness increases when the focus is on the issues," says Marvin Kalb, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project and the Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's Washington Office. "Of course, awareness is not knowledge; it's more shallow and transient."
The level of issue awareness, however, is still relatively low. When Shorenstein Center poll respondents were read an issue position attributed to a candidate and then asked whether it was the candidate's actual position, 47% on average said they "didn't know" while 34% identified the position accurately and 19% misidentified it.
In only one case could it be said that Americans have a clear understanding of a candidate's policy position. More than 60% accurately identified Gore's stand on prescription drugs for the elderly, while only 4% misidentified it. In contrast, poll respondents were more often wrong than right (21% to 16%) when asked to say whether Gore favored substantial trade restrictions on China because of its human rights record.
In Bush's case, the public's issue awareness was highest on the question of whether he favors or opposes "a large cut in personal income taxes." Forty-five percent said he favors such a cut while 17% inaccurately claimed that he opposes it. However, when respondents were asked whether Bush would require people "to register all guns they own," the proportion who identified his position accurately barely exceeded (29% to 25%) the proportion who did so inaccurately. The same pattern occurred in responses to Bush's position on campaign finance reform. Nearly as many respondents (20% versus 23%) said that Bush would ban all large campaign contributions as said he would permit them, which is his actual position.
Even among registered voters, levels of information are very low. Because respondents could guess about a candidate's issue position, the best indicator of what they actually knew was the number of positions correctly identified minus the number incorrectly identified. By this measure, nearly half of registered voters were able to recognize none or only one of the twelve candidate positions. Only 10% knew more than half of the policy positions about which they were asked. "It's pretty clear that millions of Americans will go to the polls on Election Day armed with only scant knowledge of the issues," says Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and director of the Shorenstein Center surveys. "Some of them might be a bit surprised next year when the new President pursues policies quite different from those they thought he would."
The results reported here are from nationwide telephone surveys of approximately 1,000 adults conducted November 14, 1999 October 22, 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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