Sept. 8, 2000 -- Al Gore and George W. Bush enter the decisive phase of the 2000 presidential race in a dead heat, but with Gore seizing an advantage on key issues and retaining his newfound competitiveness in personal appeal.
A new ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll finds each has the support of 47 percent of likely voters, with Ralph Nader at 3 percent and Pat Buchanan under 1 percent. Gore and Bush aren’t just tied, they’re also broadly acceptable: More than two-thirds think either would make a good president.
Sharp Gain for Gore
But beneath these even numbers lies a sharp gain in Gore’s position since midsummer. Before the conventions, Bush led in public trust to handle 10 policy issues; now he leads in just two. Gore led in just three issues; now he leads in seven. Similarly, in mid-July Bush led in six personal qualities; now it’s four. Gore had led in three; now it’s six.
Some changes on the issues are striking. In midsummer, the two were rated evenly on handling education; now Gore leads by 12 points. Gore trailed by 13 points on managing the federal budget; now Gore is up by five. Gore trailed by nine points on the economy; it’s also now Gore +5. And Gore trailed by 20 points on handling crime; now he’s down by two.
Views of Gore’s personality were encapsulated in a widely noted result a year ago, when 57 percent of registered voters called him “boring.” Now, with his emergence from Bill Clinton’s shadow, that has dropped by 16 points, and instead the majority, 56 percent, call him “interesting.” Still, it remains better for Bush, at 66 percent.
Most broadly, Gore’s favorability rating — the number of people who have a generally favorable opinion of him — is now 59 percent, his highest in ABCNEWS/Washington Post polls dating back eight years. Bush’s rating is essentially the same as Gore’s, 58 percent. It was 69 percent a year ago.
There’s a glaring gender gap in this poll, worthy of prominent notice. Among women, Gore leads by 18 points; among men, Bush leads by 20. That 38-point gender gap is the largest of the campaign to date, and it dwarfs the average, 13 points, in elections since 1980.
The gap is reflected in issues as well. Women favor Gore’s approach on 16 of 17 issues tested, all but two of them by double-digit margins. Men favor Bush, generally by smaller margins, on 11 issues; and Gore on just two.
Perhaps most hazardous for Bush is that several of the trends run counter to his campaign’s message. Example: Despite RNC ads to the contrary, voter perceptions of Gore as “honest and trustworthy” have gained 16 points, from 47 percent in mid-July to 63 percent now. Gore and Bush are now tied in this measure.
Also, while Bush stresses his compassion (as in “compassionate conservatism”), Gore beats him by 20 points as a candidate who “cares about the less fortunate.” While Bush suggests that Gore’s campaign theme is divisive, more people see Gore than Bush as “a uniter, not a divider.” And while the Republicans suggest Gore will say or do anything to get elected, about six in 10 think this is true of both candidates.
Gore holds very sizable leads on experience and knowledge of world affairs. And he even approaches Bush on having “an appealing personality.” Bush’s erstwhile 16-point lead in that measure has been whittled to six points.
Bush still prevails in another important measure, the view that he’s a strong leader. Sixty-five percent say that applies to him, compared to 54 percent for Gore.
Gore, meanwhile, has double-digit leads on several of the issues he’s been underscoring — 28 points on protecting the environment, 18 points on prescription drug benefits, 14 points on helping the middle class, 11 points on improving health care. The leads for Bush are fewer and narrower — nine points on defense, six points on taxes.
In terms of their importance to voters, education, Social Security and the economy rank as the top issues, then health care, “encouraging high moral values and standards,” the federal budget and crime. Of these Big Seven, Gore leads in three; the others are close.
Some issues that have received prominent attention continue to rank comparatively low in voter priorities, including reforming campaign finance, reducing political partisanship and abortion.
As noted, the gender gap in candidate preference on most issues is very broad:
Guns, Butter and Taxes
One issue that is resonating for Bush is military preparedness. A plurality of registered voters, 47 percent, believe the U.S. military has gotten weaker in the last eight years, while just 12 percent think it’s gotten stronger.
As noted, defense is Bush’s best issue. Just the same, while Bush has gained seven points since last winter in the perception he’d be a good commander in chief (65 percent now say so), Gore has gained nine points in the same measure (to 54 percent).
Another Bush theme, taxes, works less well. As it’s been all year, most people have other priorities for the budget surplus. Just 21 percent give priority to a tax cut; 77 percent call instead for spending on Social Security, debt reduction or domestic programs. (And when specific, popular domestic programs are cited, the call for a tax cut slips to 14 percent.)
This poll also asks what people would prefer: A large plan that gives everyone an across-the-board tax cut (i.e., Bush-style); or a smaller plan with “targeted tax cuts mainly for lower and middle-income people” (i.e., Gore-style). Fifty-three percent favor the Gore-style tax cut, while 45 percent the Bush-style plan.
There’s a similar division of opinion on another issue, tax-funded school vouchers where the public schools are underperforming. Bush favors this approach; in this poll 54 percent oppose it, 44 percent are in favor.
Another specific should be working better for Bush: His support for allowing workers to invest a portion of their Social Security contributions in the stock marker. Fifty-nine percent like the idea, yet Gore leads by eight points in trust to handle Social Security.
About three-quarters of Gore and Bush supporters alike say they “strongly” support their candidate — that’s up 10 points for Bush since midsummer, and up nearly 20 points for Gore. About 10 percent for each candidate say there’s a “good chance” they’ll change their mind.
Hard-core undecideds are few and far between; just 2 percent have no preference for a candidate. The election instead is likely to turn on lightly committed, changeable voters. This group comprises 13 percent of likely voters in this poll: People who don’t feel strongly about their preference, and say they may change their minds.
These changeable voters seem to fit precisely into the middle of the political road: Four in 10 are independents; nearly six in 10 describe themselves as moderates. There’s a bit fewer of them in the South, Bush’s best region. Yet currently they divide much like everyone else — 47 percent for Gore, 45 percent for Bush.
The vote divides sharply along economic lines, with those in the highest income groups favoring Bush and those in the lowest favoring Gore — not surprising, since voters are more likely to think Bush cares more about serving upper-income people.
At the same time, Bush does better among middle-income voters, those making between $30,000 and $50,000, even though voters say they trust Gore more to help the middle class. Bush leads in this group by nine points.
Gore leads Bush by 61-33 percent among union households, about the same as Clinton’s margin in this group in 1996. The Teamsters endorsed Gore.
The differences are less stark among swing voter groups. Bush has a slight edge, 48-41 percent, among independent voters, the key swing group. Bush and Gore are also tied among suburban and older voters, groups that both campaigns have been targeting.
The battle against Clinton fatigue is not over for Gore, but it continues to be less of a problem for him than it was earlier this year. Forty-two percent still say he’s “too close to Clinton” to give the country a fresh start; but that’s down from its peak, and 56 percent say it’s not a concern.
Gore also continues to lead Bush among people who dislike Bill Clinton personally but admire his policies — a natural Gore support group, and one he needs to win. Gore moved ahead in this group only after his convention last month.
Odds and Ends
A few other nuggets from this poll:
Going negative. At this point neither candidate is broadly perceived as having gone negative, though Gore has a slightly better image on this score. Seventy percent think he’s running a mostly positive campaign, compared to 62 percent for Bush.
Debates. There’s a change in opinion on who should be included: Fifty-nine percent now favor a Bush-Gore debate only, while 38 percent want Nader and Buchanan there too. In midsummer it was a much closer division, 49-45 percent.
Religion. There may be some risk for the Democrats in Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s high-profile expressions of religious faith. Fifty-seven percent of registered voters say they prefer that candidates keep their religious beliefs to themselves.
Congress. Preference in congressional races is as closely divided as it is in the presidential contest. Among likely voters, 47 percent say they support the Democrat in their district, 46 percent the Republican.
This ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 4-6, among a random national sample of 1,065 registered voters. The results have a three-point error margin for the full sample; 3.5 points for the subset of likely voters. Field work was done by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.