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January 5, 2000 Contact: Eric Anderson (617) 495-8269

Candidate Preferences Weaken, Poll Shows

Voter Involvement Index

As the presidential primaries and caucuses draw closer, Americans have moved further from selecting a candidate. According to the latest Shorenstein Center national survey, nearly three-fourths said they hadn't yet picked a candidate, compared with roughly two-thirds in an earlier poll.

The finding that most Americans have not yet selected a presidential candidate is at odds with those national surveys that show only a small percentage of undecided voters. But these surveys force respondents into a choice by reading them a list of candidates and basically asking them to name one. The Shorenstein Center poll posed the question differently: "Which candidate do you support at this time, or haven't you picked a candidate yet?" The landslide winner with 74% was "no candidate yet." George W. Bush was next with 13%, followed by Al Gore (6%), John McCain (3%), and Bill Bradley (2%).

More surprising is the fact that fewer Americans today have a preferred candidate than two months ago when 64% said they had not yet picked a candidate. "We had expected the opposite finding," says Harvard Professor Thomas Patterson, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project, for which the poll was conducted. "We had anticipated a decrease in the number of uncommitted citizens. Apparently, the upswing in the Bradley and McCain campaigns has served mainly to raise doubts about all the candidates. People are not flocking to support Bradley or McCain. Instead, they have increasingly declined to embrace anybody."

  Voter Involvement Index
Dec. 28Jan. 2 12%
December 2126 18%
December 1519 20%
December 812 21%
December 15 21%
Source: Shorenstein Center Poll
Sampling error: ±3%

The Shorenstein Center poll for the Vanishing Voter Project also found that attention to the campaign fell sharply during the week after Christmas. The Project's Weekly Voter Involvement Index fell to 12%, down from an average of roughly 20% in previous weeks. When asked whether the decline in public involvement might explain the rise in the percentage who have not yet selected a candidate, Marvin Kalb, project co-director and Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's Washington office, replied: "It might be part of the explanation, but if Americans' commitment to particular presidential candidates is so weak that they surrender it for the holidays, we have to ask just how engaged they are in this campaign. From every indication we have, Americans are simply not all that excited by the campaign or the candidates."

The survey results reported here are from a nationwide telephone survey of 1,025 adults conducted December 28, 1999 - January 2, 2000. The poll has 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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