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Candidate Qualities May Trump Issues in 2000

Following is an edited transcript of the first part of the Nieman Foundation's Watchdog Conference on covering the Congressional and Presidential Elections in 2000. Titled "Are We Asking the Right Questions," the conference was held at the National Press Club in Washington October 18, 1999.



I was at a conference last week at the Ronald Reagan Library. The program which, was entitled, by the way, "Can Democracy Survive the Mass Media?" began with a series of film clips put together by Marty Nolan of The Boston Globe about how Hollywood looks at the press. The scene that most struck me in connection with what we're thinking about now was from the old movie "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." It's the scene at the end where the publisher decides to suppress a major expose of a major politician by saying when the legend becomes fact we'll just print the legend.

The key point of concern at this conference is the impact of the rush toward a more entertaining journalism that's focused on celebrity and examines issues in the context of personality. At the Ronald Reagan Library conference there was an acknowledged expert in that field, Steven Coz, the publisher of The National Enquirer. He said that we in the press are creating a society in which celebrities influence all areas of life and now reach for political power. When politicians become celebrities, celebrities become politicians. When politics become the playground of celebrity it benefits The National Enquirer because it has already been through the looking glass.

It's that concern – the tendency to focus on the celebrity, the personality traits of political figures – that trivializes the political process. So the focus of this discussion will be on issues which might be overlooked or underreported in the 2000 campaigns. Issues like those that David Broder spoke of last May when he wrote in his column that it's quite a trick for something to grow larger and at the same time become more invisible. Broder was talking about the health care issue then but he might just as well have been talking about any one of a number of issues that loom ill defined in the background of the campaign rhetoric that's focused on youthful indiscretions or political money.

Issues like the trend toward monopoly of corporate America or the echoes of Vietnam or El Salvador, rhetoric creeping into the description of America's involvement in Colombia or the impact of the dwindling number of multimedia megacorporations which control the press itself. Issues that are all the more ominous and disturbing because they're not likely to be critically examined by the competing campaigns of the public power.

We're going to begin the conference with the ground work laid by a survey that Andy Kohut has just concluded. Andy for over 30 years now has been involved in survey research and political analysis. He's a past president of the Gallup organization and now is the director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Since 1993, he has done some of the most consistent and significant survey research of the public attitudes toward the political process and their involvement in the political process and how the issues play or do not play in the campaigns. His work in the 2000 campaign has already begun to shape the context of our understanding of this campaign.



I'm happy to be here and share the results of our latest survey and provide some context for this discussion. Bill has me down on the program to discuss what the people would ask of candidates and about the campaign. I think it's easier to say what the public would not ask. It's clear to me that two things come through. The public doesn't want more exposes of the personal lives of candidates and doesn't want more inside baseball reporting. The basis for this is best found in a survey that we reported in September, not the one that we're releasing today. In that national survey we tested 13 hypothetical stories about presidential candidates' personal lives. And clear majorities only believe the press should always report about four of these issues or situations.

Report Spousal Abuse, Tax Cheating, Inflated Military Duty

Our respondents said yes, always report about spousal abuse, always report about tax cheating, always report about exaggerating military or educational achievements. But no, don't report about past drinking, don't always report about past drugging, drug use or the use of antidepressants or old affairs or even a report about abortions. The poll showed, besides these hypothetical responses, some clear indications of the public's aversion to personal expose reporting in this campaign.

We found interest in campaign news dropping from 53 percent in late July to 46 percent in early September following the weeks of reporting about George W. Bush's possible cocaine use. The decline was sharpest among Republicans who normally follow campaign news more than Democrats and independents. And the internal analysis of the poll showed that people who were turned off by the kinds of reporting that I just mentioned followed the campaign less, all things being equal, than our other respondents.

53 Percent Support Watchdog Role

It's clear to us that the Lewinsky legacy with regard to the media lives. When we asked people if press scrutiny of political candidates was worth it we only found a thin 53-36 percent majority endorsing the press's watchdog role in election campaigns. That's a horrible endorsement of this basic function of the press.

I don't have good evidence for another conclusion that I draw, as good as I do about Bush's cocaine use and its impact on the percentage of people following the campaign. But I think the extensive coverage of the Iowa straw poll, an event of the media, for the media and for the political subculture and not the ordinary voter, may have also contributed to this decline in news interest in August. By a margin of 59-34 percent our respondents said that they think news editors care more about the opinions of politicians and other political insiders than their own audiences when deciding which stories to cover in an election.

Without Big Issues, Personal Qualities Dominate

This isn't the first question result that I've seen like this. I think it's really clear what the public doesn't want. It's more difficult to say what they do want. When we ask a standard question, do you want to hear about issues, do you want to hear about the candidates' personal qualities or even record, people say they want to hear about issues. Which is a genuine response. But when there are no big issues that dominate the national consciousness and divide the candidates the default is personal qualities.

Al Gore's Weakness

It's perception of a candidate's personal qualities so far which stand behind the biggest development in the campaign. And that is the lack of public support for Al Gore. It's not the issues, say respondents, when we ask them why they don't back Al Gore. They say it's his personality; they say it's his leadership ability. These reasons are cited as a basis for not supporting him in the general test election against George W. Bush and by Democrats who prefer his rival, Bill Bradley, for their nomination. In fact, almost as many people cite Gore's own personal shortcomings as cite his ties to the Clinton administration, the so-called Clinton fatigue.

Honesty Ranks High

I think more general reporting about personal qualities is a very tricky game for the press in most elections and in this one in particular. On the one hand, Americans say they strongly reject press inquiry into most avenues of a candidate's life. On the other hand, they place pretty high priority, according to this poll, on knowing certain things about a candidate. Fully 82 percent said it's very important to learn about a candidate's reputation for honesty. And almost as many, 71 percent, said the same about getting a sense of how well the candidate connects with average people.

But when we ask questions about how interested people are, our respondents were, in personal characteristics of a candidate for the most part they said we're not particularly interested. Most aspects of a candidate's resume fall into the interesting but not critical category to voters. A candidate's church membership, a candidate's clubs and associations, a candidate's experiences growing up, what a candidate's spouse is like – even military service – were not particularly interesting to most respondents except for men over 50 years of age. There's somewhat more interest in the identification of campaign contributors. But even so, that wasn't especially noted by our respondents.

No Surprise on Issues

These and other data points are something that's really very clear in these surveys and other surveys. That is, unlike tabloid audiences, ordinary people are not anxious to pry into the private lives of politicians. In a highly heterogeneous news market you can't judge broad public opinion by what makes the needle move on cable chat shows or their print equivalents. As to issues, there are no surprises in this poll. When we gave people a list of six or seven issues and said what do you want to see the next president focus on, nearly equal percentages chose shoring up Social Security or protecting Medicare, keeping the economy strong. Improving the educational system, the nation's moral breakdown, improving the health care system also got significant mentions. But none of these issues are dominant. None of them overshadow others.

Open ended questions which we've asked in other polls, which ask what the people want to hear the candidates talk about, tell us in your own words, get us the same diffuse list of issues. The old Gallup question, what's the most important problem facing the nation, also finds this same catalog of issues. There happens to be more interest in health care these days on a trend basis in responses that come out of the mouths of people. There's more interest in gun control. But we don't see any issues that really will dominate or are dominating the public's consciousness at the expense of others.

Bradley's Health Plan Heard

In that context we did a test in this poll to see how much people had heard and talked about some of the less familiar policy debates and how much inherent interest there is in hearing about where candidates stand on these issues. Of the 11 issues that we tested we only found two that people say they had heard a lot about. One was they had heard a lot about the debate over whether U.S. troops should be used to go into another country to stop killing innocent civilians in a civil war. Thank Kosovo for that awareness. 43 percent said they had heard a lot about health insurance for the uninsured. Thank Bill Bradley, whose proposals were released with considerable coverage in the two or three weeks prior to this poll.

Of the other nine issues far less than 45 percent said they had heard a lot about them. We got more response, though, when we asked which of these issues do you talk about with your friends and family. Besides the use of force and the uninsured, how to fix Medicare, whether premiums should be increased or age eligibility increased was one that people said they had talked about. Whether to put money, a portion of Social Security funds into the stock market was another one where large percentages said it had become a subject of conversation. How to make the work place more flexible to parents, how to reduce the gap between rich and poor generally and with regard to school districts were other issues that people talk about.

Some Issues Viewed as Inside Baseball

Issues that provoke less discussion and got less resonance generally were ones which people told us were of more interest to Washington elites than ordinary people. And these included whether the United States has more of a responsibility than less developed countries to deal with global pollution, whether to ban soft money contributions to political parties – and we didn't use that particular language in the question. How to reform the international financial system to make it more stable. How to insure internet access for the poor. These are not questions that the public says they've heard a lot about nor are they questions where many people say they talk about them with friends and associates.

Three Issues Attract Strong Interest

The bottom line of this survey with regard to these 11 issues is that Americans have at least some interest in hearing where the candidates stand on most of these issues, even the more difficult ones. However, only three of the issues that we tested stood out as attracting strong interest. 62 percent said it was very important to hear about a candidate's stand on how to provide health insurance for the uninsured. About the same percentage said that about the use of force in humanitarian international efforts. Half the public placed great importance on hearing what candidates have to say about reforming Medicare, which has great personal implications.

But Can Issues Change Coverage? Maybe

Can these issues and others change coverage? Change what appears to be a campaign headed in the direction of a focus on candidates and their personal qualities? I think the answer is maybe. It's clear that this is not 1968 and it's not 1980 where we have great issues that are consuming us or we have a troubled nation. It's not even '92. The hope is that it won't be '88 where the public comes away from the campaign with such a terrible taste in its mouth. And every poll that I saw, including ours after that election, indicated the public really disliked what ended up to be a very symbolic and nasty campaign.

I think maybe some of these issues or others can become important bases by which people choose between presidential candidates. But it is maybe. People sincerely want issues. They're not just saying that. But in an environment where there is no big question these questions and others, policy questions, have to be brought forth, if not marketed, to the public either by the press or by the campaigns. Marketed in the sense that the public has to be exposed to them. And it's not easy. We have two polls in the field now about the impact or public reaction to the Senate rejection of the test ban treaty. I wanted to know how many people had heard a lot about this. And I thought, looking at the headlines of The New York Times and The Washington Post, it's got to be substantial numbers.

I looked at a partial poll, one of these two polls, the partial results. Only one in four respondents, less than 25 percent, said they had heard a lot about the rejection of the test ban treaty and only half of the respondents in total said they had heard anything about it. So our supposition that the big issues of our day are reaching people, even dramatic ones like this, are sometimes wrong. In fact, they're often wrong. But there are other indications in the survey that when an issue is brought forth by a campaign it can make a difference.

There's a small indication of this in the poll that we're releasing today. Public news attentiveness to Bradley's proposals for insuring the uninsured for health care scored the highest mark on our monthly news interest index of any campaign item over the course of the year. 24 percent said they paid very close attention to news about these proposals compared to only 17 percent for general campaign news, which is more typical of what we find every month.

So I think there's at least some hope that if the campaigns or if the media stress issues the public will follow. But it's an environment in which issues will have to be brought to the public. They're not going to come from the bottom up, with regard to national issues at least.

The Internet Factor

Kovach – We have created a communication system with the new technology over the last two decades in which it looks as though we're creating new classes of information-rich people. We have an older generation that gets most of its political news off television. And we have a younger generation that increasingly is getting much of its information off of the internet. And we have a ruling elite that knows neither of those two worlds. The people who run the economic institutions and the political institutions of this country don't watch television and they don't surf the Internet. So there's an information gap between these three groups of people. I don't know how we begin to figure how the press fills those gaps and communicates between those groups of people. A survey like yours could perhaps be affected by the fact that significant groups of people have significant different information pools. So that no issue is going to gather a significant group of people.

Kohut – There's no question that there's more diversity in the way people get their news now than there was 10 years ago, 20 years ago. This particular poll shows a dramatic increase in the percentage of people who say they principally rely on the internet for national and international news. At the beginning of the year when we asked that question we found 6 percent of the respondents saying that's how they primarily got their news. In this survey it was 11 percent. So the internet is coming on very fast. If you look at the people who use the Internet for news, their interests aren't materially different and their levels of engagement aren't materially different than that of people who don't use the internet, because of two countervailing forces. One they're better educated. Which would lead them to know more about issues and care more. But on the other hand, they're younger. And the biggest difference, the biggest factor that separates those who are engaged and those who are disengaged is age. It's not just an age thing, it is a generational thing. The youngest generation, generation X, and the younger element of the baby boom generation are generations that have never really participated in, haven't had the news habit, nearly to the degree that older generations have and haven't participated in voting and other civic ways that these previous generations do. So you don't see an enormous difference between the Internet audience and the general news audience at this point.

Kovach – The reason this all came to mind was if Walter Lippmann taught us anything about the press and its place in American society I think it was his conclusion that we all react to the world based on the images that are in our minds, the pictures that are in our heads about the world. And those pictures are planted there by the press. If we were moving toward a society in which so many different segments of the press which cover issues in so many different ways, we're looking at a society that has so many different and non parallel images in their heads that the question of how we as a society come together in an election year so that we're making a common judgment on the important issues of the campaign becomes increasingly important. I think that's the challenge that the press and the institutions that work with it, survey research that helps the political system and the press understand where the country is, becomes even more important.

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