State of the Nation

Al Gore is benefitting from two seemingly disparate trends — higher satisfaction with the state of the nation and increased worry about longer-term economic issues. A substantial dip in public satisfaction with national conditions, which was particularly evident in the spring and early summer, has reversed itself. More than half of voters (52%) now say they’re satisfied, up from 47% in June and April. Young people, college graduates and those in the highest income category are among the most satisfied. The partisan gap on satisfaction remains large. Fully 63% of Democrats say they’re satisfied, compared to only 39% of Republicans.1

Gore now leads Bush among voters who are satisfied with the state of the nation by a nearly two-to-one margin (58%-32%). In June, he led Bush among this group by a narrower 53%-34% margin. More strikingly, in August 1999, when public contentment was at its recent high, Gore was pulling in only 49% of the satisfied voters, while 46% preferred Bush. Although dissatisfied voters still prefer Bush over Gore, Bush’s margin among this group has narrowed significantly since last year.

In spite of the overall good feelings about the state of the nation, many voters are feeling anxious about their financial futures. Nearly two-thirds say they’re very concerned about being able to afford necessary health care when a family member gets sick, up from 58% a year ago. More than half are very concerned about having enough money for their retirement and being able to save enough money to put a child through college. In both cases, concern is up modestly from last year. Among those faced with the issue, roughly four-in-ten voters are very worried about having adequate child care when they go to work.

Overall, minorities and those with less education and lower incomes tend to express the highest levels of concern on all of these issues. In addition, Democrats are more anxious than independents or Republicans. Liberal Democrats have shown a substantial increase in concern about retirement and health care over the past year.

Gore has an advantage among voters who voice these types of concerns, while Bush has the edge among those who are feeling less economically stressed. For example, voters who say they’re very concerned about having enough money for their retirement prefer Gore over Bush by a margin of 53%-34%. Those who aren’t as concerned about this opt for Bush — 51%-38%. Similarly, those who are very concerned about being able to afford necessary health care are firmly in the Gore camp (54% vs. 32% for Bush). The same pattern holds for those who are concerned about saving for college and finding adequate child care.

Voters are paying more attention than ever to the candidates’ positions on issues, and other factors have receded somewhat, at least for now. Fully 55% of Bush supporters and 48% of Gore supporters say their candidate’s stand on the issues is what they like most about him, up from 50% and 42% respectively in July.

Overall, fewer Gore supporters are listing his experience as his most important quality, compared to earlier in the year. Leadership and personality, seen as Bush’s best qualities by 34% of his backers in May, are cited by only 28% of his supporters today.

Issue stands are also what voters say they like least about the candidates they do not support. Fully 48% of Bush supporters say that Gore’s stand on the issues is what they like least about him, up from 43% in July. Similarly, 43% of Gore supporters say they dislike Bush because of his issue positions, up from 34% in July.

The intensity of support for both candidates has increased somewhat as the campaign has progressed through the summer. Strong backers of Gore and Bush now outnumber moderate supporters and those who merely lean to one of the candidates. Yet even as the two men have increasingly consolidated their core supporters, a significant minority of voters say they may change their minds.

In June, moderate supporters of the major candidates outnumbered strong supporters by a 52% to 38% margin. Today, 46% of voters express strong support for either Bush or Gore, with only 40% saying their support is not strong. This level of conviction among voters is somewhat higher than at comparable points in the campaigns in 1988, 1992 and 1996.

Despite this, a slightly larger proportion of voters say there is still a chance they might switch their vote than at this time in 1992 or 1996. Gore is still an option for an additional 13% of voters, and 15% still might vote for Bush. Taking into account those who may vote for either candidate, fully 25% of registered voters say there is a chance they will switch their support before the election. This is largely unchanged from June.

Nearly four-in-ten voters (38%) say they have ruled out supporting Bush, but that compares favorably to the record of his GOP predecessors. In September 1996, 47% had already ruled out supporting Bob Dole, and four years earlier 44% had foreclosed the possibility of voting for Bush’s father. By comparison, 35% of voters say they are certain they will not vote for Gore, a figure which is comparable to past Democratic campaigns with one exception. Just 28% had ruled out Clinton at this point in his 1992.

Most supporters of Gore and Bush see their choice as a vote for their favored candidate, and not a vote against his opponent. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Gore backers and 60% of Bush supporters say they are voting for their candidate, and not against the opponent. This level of positive support is particularly striking when compared to Dole supporters in September 1996, roughly half of whom sided with Dole primarily as a vote against Clinton or Ross Perot.

Gore’s success in unifying Democrats comes in stark contrast to his lackluster performance over the spring and summer. Prior to the conventions, only 74% of Democratic voters backed Gore, with the rest either favoring another candidate or undecided. Today, fully 89% of Democrats support the vice president, who managed to peel backing away from both Bush and Ralph Nader.

With each candidate shoring up their partisan base, the electoral battle is turning increasingly to independents. In contrast to the impressive gains he made among Democrats, Gore had only modest success drawing support from independents over the summer. Today, independents are split: 39% for Gore, 38% for Bush; in July, Bush held a 40%-34% edge. Moreover, independents remain largely unenthusiastic about the candidates, suggesting their preferences could change. Only 31% of independents who support Gore say they feel strongly about their choice, and 34% of independents who support Bush agree.

Unlike earlier in the summer, Gore is now receiving support from traditional Democratic constituencies that Clinton held firmly in 1992 and 1996. For example, the vice president currently has the support of 80% of African-American voters, up from only 64% in July and comparable to the support Clinton typically received from black voters. Gore has also strengthened his lead in urban areas, among poorer voters, and among union households. Though Gore never trailed Bush in any of these groups, his support up until now has not matched that garnered by Clinton in either of his victories.

Bush was also able to rally his Republican base over the convention period, but he had less ground to cover. Since June, he gained only marginally among strong Republicans, while picking up nearly 10 percentage points among less staunch GOP partisans. Gore, by contrast, gained six points among strong Democratic partisans and 15 points among weaker party supporters. That placed his overall partisan backing on par with the support Bush receives from Republicans.

The political typology shows the strengths and vulnerabilities of each candidate. Gore appears to have separated himself from the scandals of the Clinton administration, and that has boosted his support from Social Conservatives — older, working class, religious Democrats.

At the outset of the campaign, Clinton fatigue caused many in this group to be skeptical about Gore, and to seriously consider voting Republican. Last August, just 66% said they would vote for the vice president, while 29% preferred Bush. Gore has overcome his weakness among Social Conservatives, and is now running as strongly here (83% support) as among the other Democratic groups. (See box page 2.)

But the typology also shows that Bush is holding a formidable lead over Gore among the New Prosperity Independents. These pro-business, somewhat libertarian voters tend to be satisfied with the state of the nation but critical of government and politics. They currently favor Bush by a 55% to 22% margin.

Gore doesn’t do much better among the more pessimistic and financially insecure Disaffected independents, who favor Bush 44% to 23%. Unlike their New Prosperity counterparts, the Disaffecteds feel they have been left behind by the new economy, are distrustful of big business, and less tolerant in their social attitudes.

Yet there is likely to be fluidity in both of these key independent groups. Fully 18% of New Prosperity Independents and 24% of Disaffecteds remain undecided, and only 24% of each group feel strongly about their current choice. Moreover, among both groups, roughly one-third of those stating a preference for Gore or Bush say there is still a chance they might vote for the other candidate. Other independents who are oriented to the liberal or conservative typology groups support Bush and Gore at about comparably high levels, with far less uncertainty.

For his part, Bush is having surprising difficulty rallying the socially conservative wing of his party. Populist Republicans provide the weakest backing for Bush out of all conservative constituencies. Currently, only 77% of Populist Republicans support Bush, while 10% express support for Gore. This compares poorly to Bush’s overwhelming 90% support from Staunch Conservatives and 81% support from Moderate Republicans. (See box page 2.)

When the typology is filtered on party affiliation, Bush gets fully 95% of Staunch Conservatives who say they are Republicans, but still only 83% and 82% of Moderates and Populists who call themselves Republican. By comparison, Gore gets no less than 88% of the support of Democratic identifiers in any Democratic-oriented typology group.

For the first time since March, Gore is favored by nearly as many men as Bush. Fully 43% of men express support for Gore, with 45% supporting Bush. However, this close battle among men does not signify a closing of the gender gap. Throughout the spring and summer women have consistently backed Gore more than men, a pattern which continues today, with women currently favoring Gore by a 50% to 37% margin.

Bush continues to lead among married voters by a 47% to 42% margin, down only slightly from a 48% to 36% advantage in July. Meanwhile, Gore has strengthened his lead among unmarried voters to 21 points (53% to 32%), up from a 10-point (46% to 36%) lead just prior to the conventions.

While Gore failed to attract strong support from parents with children under 18 earlier in the summer, he appears to have largely closed the “parent gap” and is running about even with Bush among parents today (46% Bush vs. 45% Gore). In June, Bush led among this crucial swing group 48%-34%.

In particular, though Gore still trails among fathers, though he has closed the gap from an 19-point Bush lead to 7-points. Gore does better among mothers, though the race remains close among these mostly younger women. Among non-parents, Gore maintains a commanding lead with women, while men without children at home remain divided.

The close race between Bush and Gore among parents masks a sharp divide between married and single parents regarding who is the better candidate. While Bush has a 50% to 41% lead among voters who are married with children, single parents, 63% of whom are women, favor Gore 55% to 34%.

Some of Gore’s biggest gains over the convention period came among America’s oldest voters. Those age 65 and older were split between Gore and Bush in July; they now favor Gore by a 52% to 34% margin. This new advantage reflects Gore’s ability to shore up the support of older Democrats, something Bush has yet to achieve among Republican seniors. Only 73% of Democratic seniors supported Gore in July, a figure which has risen to 90% today. By comparison, Bush has the backing of only 78% of Republicans 65 and older, up only 1 percent since July.

Gore’s lead among older voters also reflects an increasing focus in the issues among retirees. In June, fully 32% of Gore backers 65 and older cited his experience as what they most liked about the vice president, with only 29% referring to his stand on the issues. Today, 39% of retirees say they support Gore because of his stance on the issues, while only 21% say experience is his strongest suit. Even with this increase, however, older supporters of both candidates are more likely to cite personality, experience, or leadership ability — rather than issues — when describing what they like most about their candidate.

Despite Gore’s gains, the two candidates are still battling over the same groups of swing voters that have been in play all year. In particular, younger women and older men remain divided between Gore and Bush. While women 50 and over support Gore by a 54% to 32% margin, women under 50 are split: 47% for Gore, 42% for Bush. Among men, those under 50 remain in the Bush column (47% Bush, 40% Gore) while men 50 and over favor Gore by a slight margin of 45%-43%.

Among white voters, Catholics and non-evangelical Protestants are largely split between the major candidates, though Gore has made some progress with both groups. In July, Bush led among non-evangelical Protestants 47% to 39%. Gore has managed to close this gap, and now Bush holds only a 45%-44% edge. White, non-Hispanic Catholics have shown no clear preference between Bush and Gore; the vice president now leads, 47%-43%. But Gore has made little headway in appealing to white evangelical Protestants, who have consistently favored Bush by roughly a two-to-one margin as they do now (59% to 29%).

Gore’s convention and post-convention message played particularly well among voters in the Northeast, where he holds 17-point edge. He made more modest gains in the battleground Midwestern states, where he now has a 47% to 42% edge. At the same time, Gore has closed Bush’s 10-point lead in the South in July to a 45% to 44% margin. Western voters favor Gore by a 48% to 39% margin, much as they did in July.

One problem facing Republican candidates this year is substantial division among Republican voters about the effectiveness of their party. When asked how good a job the party is doing standing up for its traditional positions on such things as reducing the size of government, cutting taxes and promoting conservative social values, only half of Republicans and those who lean Republican say their party is doing an excellent or good job.

By comparison, nearly two-thirds of Democrats (63%) say their party is doing an excellent or good job in working toward such traditional party goals as protecting the interests of minorities, helping the poor and needy, and representing working people.

Staunch Conservatives and Populist Republicans are most likely to express frustration over the GOP’s performance. A majority in each group (54% and 52% respectively) feels the party is doing only a fair or poor job of standing up for its traditional positions. By comparison, Moderate Republicans are far more satisfied with the party, with only one-third (34%) giving negative marks.

Though Democrats in general are more satisfied with their party’s performance, satisfaction varies significantly across different segments of the party. Fully three out of four New Democrats, who are generally middle income and economically secure, give their party positive evaluations. By comparison, only 61% of the Partisan Poor feel the party is doing a good job standing up for its traditional positions. Similarly, both Liberal Democrats and Socially Conservative Democrats show somewhat weaker satisfaction with the party (59% and 62% positive evaluations respectively), even though these Democrats strongly disagree with each other on many social issues.