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February 16, 2000 Contact: Melissa Ring (617) 496-9761

Most Americans Still Undecided On A Presidential Candidate

Voter Involvement Index

Though the excitement of the New Hampshire primary boosted support for all the major presidential candidates, many Americans have since backed away from their candidate preference. According to the weekly Shorenstein Center national survey, two-thirds of Americans don't currently claim to have chosen a candidate for president.

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 a list of candidates and basically asking them to select one. The Shorenstein Center polls pose the question differently. "Which candidate do you support at this time, or haven't you picked a candidate yet?" The landslide winner with 68% was "no candidate yet." George W. Bush was next with 11%, followed by Al Gore (9%), John McCain (5%), and Bill Bradley (2%).

The number of Americans who are undecided on a presidential candidate had fallen to 54% during the week immediately following the New Hampshire primary. However, the increase in the number of uncommitted voters during the past week has taken the level back to where it was before the contest. According to Marvin Kalb, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project and Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's Washington office: "These results are extraordinary for two reasons: one, they show that the excitement of New Hampshire was exceptional, but fleeting, and two, the American people seem more discriminating and slower to choose a candidate now than ever before."

Presidential Candidate Preference
  2/13/00 2/9/00 2/6/00 1/30/00 1/23/00 1/16/00 1/2/00 11/14/99
Bill Bradley 2 2 4 3 3 4 2 5
George W. Bush 11 13 17 15 15 14 13 16
Al Gore 9 12 15 10 8 4 6 6
John McCain 5 6 6 3 5 4 3 2
Other Candidate 4.5 4 3.5 2.5 4.5 3 3.5 6
Support a candidate but canít remember name 2 1 2 1 1 3 1 2
Donít currently support a candidate 68 63 54 66 66 70 73 64
Source: Shorenstein Center polls. Sampling error: ±4%

It is sometimes assumed that voters align with individual candidates in ever larger numbers as the November election approaches. That may or may not be true later in the campaign, but the weekly Shorenstein Center surveys have revealed a sharply different pattern in the early months of the 2000 campaign. The proportion of aligned voters has shifted up and down in much the same pattern as the public's attention to the campaign. When attention rises, as it did around the New Hampshire primary, so does the number of Americans who claim to have a preferred candidate. As attention slides downward, the number of aligned voters also decreases.

"What we are seeing in this early stage is a lot of 'top-of-mind' response," says Thomas Patterson, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project and Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "The notion that voters latch onto a candidate, and hold onto that choice, describes only some citizens. For many, candidate preference is fleeting. They have a candidate in mind one day and then it's gone. The tendency reflects the fact that most Americans are only somewhat interested in presidential politics at this point in the campaign."

  Voter Involvement Index
Feb. 9-13 34%
Feb. 4-9 30%
Feb. 2-6 38%
Jan. 27-30 32%
Jan. 21-27 33%
Source: Shorenstein Center Poll
Sampling error: ±6%

Interest in the campaign has receded from its high point the week of the New Hampshire primary. In the latest Shorenstein Center weekly poll, only 24% claimed to have been paying "a great deal" or "quite a bit" of attention to the campaign, in contrast to 27% in the first week of February. And only 26% said they had discussed the campaign during the past day, down from 33%. The Voter Involvement Index, a composite measure of Americans' interest in the campaign, fell from 38% the week after New Hampshire to 34% last week slightly higher than it was before the Iowa caucuses.

The survey results reported here are from a nationwide telephone survey of 1,011 adults conducted February 9-13, 2000. The survey 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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