Introduction and Summary

The presidential primary season may prove to be a decisive factor in Campaign 2000, not only for who won, but for the way the winners emerged from the process in the eyes of the voters. Al Gore was clearly helped, and George W. Bush was just as clearly hurt. The vice president has improved his personal image, while making gains among two key groups whose support had eluded him last year, independents and men. In contrast, many people have come to dislike Bush personally, especially former supporters of John McCain. As a consequence, the Texas governor now trails Gore for the first time in a nationwide Pew Research Center survey, by 49%-43%.

The survey, conducted March 15-19 among 1,184 adults, finds little indication that voters have been turned off by the outcome of the primaries, or are any more critical of the process this year than at comparable points in previous election cycles. In fact, voters are more satisfied with the choices they face in the fall than they were at this stage four and eight years ago. Further, despite the disappointment of Bradley and McCain supporters, there has been only a modest increase in dissatisfaction with the prospect of a Gore vs. Bush match-up since the middle of last year, and fewer now believe a third-party candidate would be desirable than did so then. Americans once again are dismayed by campaign spending and negative politics, but no more so than four years ago.

Bush’s declines in support since December are highly concentrated and may well reflect scarring from his primary battles. Some of his biggest losses and Gore’s greatest gains have come among McCain’s prime constituencies: Easterners, older men, white Catholics, and independents. Overall, Gore leads Bush by a 51% to 41% margin among voters who describe themselves as former backers of McCain. And Gore leads among the independents who backed both McCain and Bradley.

Changed personal images of the candidates, not issues, are behind the movement in the presidential horse race. A larger percentage of Gore supporters now cite his personality and leadership abilities as reasons for supporting him than did so in the fall (64% vs. 55%). Conversely, the percentage saying they don’t like Bush because of his personality has jumped from 19% to 33% since then. Asked to provide a one-word description of Bush, fully 31% of the public volunteer a negative term — compared to only 12% a year ago.

For all of Gore’s gains in the current survey, however, the polling also identifies a number of important points for Bush that could form the basis for a resurgence. First, while the public has more confidence in the vice president on most issues, it thinks Bush could do a better job of controlling the price of gasoline, which is by far the leading item on this month’s news interest index. And voters have slightly more confidence in Bush than Gore in being able to handle the top issue on the public’s agenda — education. They are also quite likely to react negatively to charges that the vice president was involved in unethical fund raising in 1996. It was the negative campaign theme with the most resonance of six tested in the current survey.

Gore Winning Among Key Groups

Gore’s new strength in the two-way race with Bush is boosted in part by big jumps in support among groups where McCain had been gaining in the final weeks of his primary campaign — including older voters, independents, and voters in the Northeast. Gore has moved into a slight lead over Bush after being in a virtual tie (45%-46%) last month, and trailing Bush by double digits (40%-55%) in December.

For the first time since the presidential race began to take shape more than a year ago, Gore has a lead among independents, 47%-39%. This marks a substantial gain for the vice president among these swing voters, who supported Bush by a 56%-36% margin before the primaries began.

Gore also enjoys a sizable 62%-30% lead among senior citizens, compared to a much narrower 48%-44% spread a month ago. Notably, Gore’s older supporters are also more likely than other Gore backers to cite Bush’s personality as the thing they like least about him (47% among senior citizens, compared to 33% overall).

Gore bests Bush among older men (52%-42%), a group among which he trailed in February (41%-47%), and has closed what was once a substantial gap with Bush among all men. Today, men are evenly divided (46% support Gore, 47% support Bush). This compares with a 20-point Bush lead among men in December. At the same time, Bush still enjoys a significant lead over Gore among white men.

Similarly, Gore has his first sizable lead among women, who support the vice president by a 52%-39% margin. The women’s vote was more narrowly divided last month, and Bush actually enjoyed a 9 percentage point lead in December.

Primaries Costly for Bush

Gore’s recent gains reflect fallout from the GOP primaries in other ways as well. Gore now has a slight edge among white Catholic voters (50%-45%), a group that had heavily supported Bush in December (30%-64%), before the primary season skirmishes over Bob Jones University and the controversy over that institution’s stance on Catholics.

Moreover, Gore leads Bush by a 51%-44% margin among voters who say they backed McCain during the primary process.1 These McCain supporters are especially vocal critics of Bush as a person — nearly half (48%) of those who support Gore point to Bush’s personality as the thing they like least about him.

But Gore’s most important gains from supporters of McCain and Bradley come among independents who now disproportionately favor the vice president. In contrast, the party regulars have largely returned to the fold, with Republicans supporting Bush and Democrats supporting Gore.

Bush’s Image Suffers

More importantly, perhaps, the battles of the primary season substantially altered the images of Bush and Gore in many voters’ minds. Bush’s personality is a much bigger liability for the Texas governor today than it was five months ago. In contrast, Gore’s personality and leadership abilities are now more of a plus for the vice president.

New concerns about Bush’s personality are evident in voters’ one-word descriptions of the Texas governor. In past months, the most frequently mentioned words were uniformly positive, including good, okay, and alright. Today, good and okay are still mentioned most, but arrogant ranks as a close third. Overall, 31% of Americans now use a negative word to describe Bush, up from 21% in September and just 12% a year ago.

For his part, Gore is still viewed by many as boring, although the number of Americans who mention words that poke fun at the vice president is down slightly from September. Instead, the frequency of both negative and positive phrases has increased somewhat over the past year as Gore has moved more fully into the public spotlight as a presidential candidate.

What’s more, the vice president’s personality and leadership abilities are becoming more of a plus for him. Today, fully 64% of Gore supporters say they like his personality and leadership skills more than his ties to the Clinton administration, an increase from 55% in October. And while most Gore opponents cite his ties to the Clinton administration as the main reason for voting against him (54%), the number citing his personality and leadership abilities as a reason to vote against him is down as well (29%, compared to 38% in October).

Buchanan Not The Answer

The battle for McCain supporters may well continue to be waged between Bush and Gore, because possible Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan has not emerged as a strong alternative. Overall, Buchanan garners the support of only 6% of voters in a three-way match-up against Bush and Gore. Including Buchanan in the presidential match-up does not hurt Bush or significantly alter the race, with Gore remaining just slightly ahead — 47% vs. 40%, with 6% for Buchanan.

Buchanan fails to draw significantly more support from independents (9%) or McCain supporters (8%). Buchanan also remains weak among white Evangelicals (7%), who strongly support Bush.