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Public Uninformed About Candidates Learn Little From Campaign
December 16, 1999

Voter Involvement Index Full Questionnaire

With six weeks remaining until voters cast ballots in the first Republican and Democratic primary elections, Americans are poorly informed about the presidential candidates. Most are unaware of the front-runners' positions on key issues, and those who think they know the positions are often wrong.

Although John McCain has made campaign finance reform the centerpiece of his campaign, the vast majority of Americans have no knowledge of McCain's position on his signature issue. When asked whether McCain would prohibit or allow large contributions to political campaigns, or whether this was something they hadn't heard about yet, 84% said they hadn't heard of McCain's position. Only 14% correctly said McCain would prohibit large contributions and 2% incorrectly said he would allow them.

  Voter Involvement Index
November 1014 23%
November 1923 17%
November 2328 16%
December 15 21%
December 812 21%
Source: Shorenstein Center Poll
Sampling error: ±3%

According to the latest poll for the Vanishing Voter Project, Americans are no more informed about the issue positions of the other presidential candidates. Despite increased sparring between Bradley and Gore over health care, 71% said they had not heard of Bradley's plan to provide government-paid health insurance for all low-income Americans. Although 20% correctly identified Bradley as in favor of the plan, 9% felt Bradley opposed this plan.

Nearly three-quarters (74%) said they hadn't heard about Al Gore's position on school vouchers. Of those who thought they knew Gore's position, half correctly responded that Gore is against the use of tax dollars to pay for private school tuition, and half incorrectly believed that he favors such a plan.

Only 18% of Americans know that George W. Bush opposes requiring people to register all guns that they own. Nearly the same percentage (14%) believe Bush favors a gun registration requirement. The remaining 69% haven't heard of Bush's position.

The Vanishing Voter Project is conducted 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 will monitor news coverage and survey the electorate every week for the next year to determine when and why citizens follow or ignore the campaign. The survey results reported here are from a nationwide telephone survey of 1,013 adults conducted December 8-12, 1999. The poll has a sampling error of plus or minus 3%.

Candidate Impressions Vague, Confused

The Shorenstein Center Poll gave respondents a less difficult test of their candidate knowledge by asking about the first thing that comes to mind when they thought about the different presidential candidates, or whether anything comes to mind at all.

Only 42% could say anything at all about John McCain. Of those who did, the most frequent reference was to his Vietnam experience (34%). Only 1% mentioned his alleged temper, even though it was for a time a focus of news coverage.

Although more people commented on George W. Bush than any other candidate (79%), his identity is frequently confused in the public mind. Many think of Bush as the son of a former president (29%), but some think of him as a former president himself (11%). Only 1% made reference to any policy associated with Bush.

When asked about Al Gore, a surprising one in four Americans had nothing at all to say about the sitting Vice President. The most frequent responses about Gore were his position as Vice President and general negative evaluations (19% each). Compared to the other candidates, more people thought of Gore in terms of his policy positions (8%).

Bill Bradley, a relative newcomer to the national stage, is known by half the public, although he is recognized more as a basketball player (38%) than as a former Senator or politician (10%). Virtually no one thought of Bradley in terms of an issue position despite the emphasis both he and the news media have placed on his health care plan.

The Voter Involvement Index

  Voter Involvement Index: 21%

Components of Index
  Talked about campaign 11%
  Paid close attention to campaign 19%
  Recall a news story about campaign 24%
  Thought about campaign 31%
Source: Shorenstein Center Poll, December 15, 1999
Sampling error: ±3%

A feature of the Vanishing Voter Project is the Voter Involvement Index, which will track the public's involvement in the presidential campaign on a weekly basis through next November. The Index is based on four measures whether people say they are currently paying close attention to the campaign, and whether they are thinking about the campaign, talking about it, and following it in the news. The Index for the week of December 7-12 was unchanged from the previous week. It held steady at 21%, which is below that of early November, when Elizabeth Dole's withdrawal from the race, and George W. Bush's inability to identify public leaders were topics of public interest.

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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