Introduction and Summary

Public interest in the White House sex scandal has not increased at all with the news that President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky will soon give grand jury testimony. Only 29% of Americans are following news of the controversy very closely, despite a torrent of media coverage. News interest is nearly identical to that in previous months, when little was happening and the story was off the front pages. In June, 28% were highly attentive to the story; in April, 27%.

The Pew Research Center nationwide survey conducted July 29 to August 2 found that the big news out of Washington for the average American was the shooting in the Capitol — 45% followed the tragedy very closely. Reports about the nation’s blistering heat wave also eclipsed interest in the Beltway’s own sizzler, with 38% following the news very closely.

Clearly, the Clinton-Lewinsky case has lost its punch for most Americans. Half as many people judge the allegations to be of great importance to the country as felt that way when the story first broke (22% today, down from 40% in January). Even among Republicans, just 36% see the issue as very important and only 33% are following it very closely.

At the same time, the public seems in a more forgiving mood toward Bill Clinton than it was earlier in the year. Even though considerably more Americans now think that he had sex with Lewinsky and lied about it, the president’s approval rating stands at 63%, up slightly from 59% in June. The percentage believing Clinton should be impeached and removed from office if he lied or encouraged Monica Lewinsky to lie has fallen, despite recent developments. Only 31% now say the president should go if he lied under oath about having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, down from 40% in March and 50% in February. If it turns out Clinton encouraged Lewinsky to lie about the nature of their relationship, 41% of Americans say he should be impeached, down from 48% in March and February.1

Republicans are more inclined toward impeachment than Democrats. However, even among the GOP faithful, strong support for impeachment only exists under the scenario that Clinton encouraged Lewinsky to lie. Even proof that Clinton lied about a sexual relationship would not move most Republicans.

Mea Culpa Would Satisfy Most

Few think the incident will lead to the end of the Clinton presidency. In the end, most Americans (55%) believe that Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s expected report to Congress will embarrass the president but not lead to impeachment hearings. Some 20% think the report will clear Clinton of wrongdoing; 13% think it will lead to impeachment hearings.

Fully 60% would be satisfied to end the matter if Clinton were to tell the American public that he had an affair with Lewinsky but lied about it to protect his family. Only 32% think Congress should still consider impeachment hearings in the wake of a public confession. Republicans are evenly divided on this issue: 47% say an admission of guilt should be enough to let the president off the hook. An equal percentage (45%) say Congress should still consider impeachment hearings. By a margin of 59%-to-34%, Independents favor putting the matter to rest.

Today, a congressional vote in favor of impeachment hearings would risk a public backlash. A majority (57%) says they would have an unfavorable opinion of members who voted for impeachment hearings. The crucial swing voters — registered voters who are undecided about how they will vote this fall — would not be impressed with members who pushed for hearings. By a margin of 54%-to-28% they say their opinion of those members would be unfavorable.

Voters who plan to support the Republican Party in the upcoming congressional elections would see a vote for hearings as a definite plus — 57% say they would have a favorable opinion of members who support hearings. Democratic voters would react negatively toward members who voted to pursue impeachment — 78% unfavorable vs. 17% favorable.

Most Now Believe Clinton Probably Lied

Americans overwhelmingly (73%) believe the president will continue to deny any sexual relationship with Lewinsky when he testifies in the grand jury investigation this month, even as the public becomes increasingly convinced Clinton did have an affair with Lewinsky and lied about it under oath. Fully 70% said allegations that Clinton had sexual relations with Lewinsky are definitely or probably true in last week’s poll, up from 52% in February after the allegations first broke. Similarly, two-thirds (66%) now say it is likely Clinton lied about the affair in his previous testimony, an increase from 49% five months ago.

This growing skepticism about Clinton’s actions is broad-based, with even members of the president’s own party flip-flopping on several questions concerning Clinton’s guilt. When the scandal story broke earlier this year, barely one-third of Democrats (33%) said the president definitely or probably had an affair, and even fewer (30%) said it was likely he lied about it in his earlier testimony. Today, more than half of Democrats (56%) say Clinton definitely or probably had an affair and almost as many (50%) say he likely lied about it in his sworn testimony.

At the same time, most Democrats continue to have doubts about another allegation against the president — the charge that Clinton participated in an effort to get Lewinsky to lie about the affair. Just 29% of Democrats in last week’s poll said this allegation is definitely or probably true. This compares with majorities of Independents (51%) and Republicans (68%) who say it is likely the president participated in an attempt to influence Lewinsky’s testimony.

The public divides sharply along partisan lines over who they believe more — Clinton or Lewinsky. Two-thirds of Republicans (66%) said they would believe Lewinsky if she and Clinton offer different accounts of their relationship, while 64% of Democrats said they would believe Clinton. Among those who believe Clinton more than Lewinsky, most (57%) would not be swayed even if Lewinsky provided new evidence, such as tape recorded messages from her answering machine or personal gifts from Clinton.

While most Americans blame both Clinton and Starr for the length of the grand jury investigation, Starr gets a greater share of the criticism. Fully 70% say Starr has taken more time than necessary in his investigation, while 24% say he has not taken too much time. In contrast, 56% say Clinton has delayed the inquiry by not saying more about his relationship with Lewinsky, while 38% say the president is not to blame.

One Cloud for White House

One potentially troubling pattern for the White House in the Pew Research Center data is that people who believe that Clinton definitely lied about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky favor impeachment while those who think that he probably lied oppose impeachment. This raises the possibility that if more Americans become convinced that Clinton committed perjury, they may take a graver view of this charge. However, over the past six months, the public has become more certain of Clinton’s guilt while at the same time less in favor of impeachment.