America The Conflicted

primar ballot vote
There are a number of reasons why this year’s presidential race is so close, and why many key voting groups divided their votes across both candidates.

In the first place, the electorate holds conflicting views about the type of government they want and what the government’s role should be on important policy issues. Secondly, both candidates are viewed by large numbers of voters as flawed. And finally, two of the strongest dynamics in this election - the strong economy (which should have helped Gore) and President Clinton’s scandals and moral lapses (which should have helped Bush) - may have created an electorate torn between the desire to change the moral climate of the country and the desire to keep the economy going in the same direction.

The Vote

A number of important voting groups - including much of middle America - split their vote across the two major candidates:

  • Independents voted for Bush over Gore by a two-point margin, 47 percent to 45 percent. Mr. Clinton won among independents in 1996.
  • Catholics, who in recent presidential elections have supported the winner, divided nearly evenly. Fifty percent voted for Gore, and 47 percent for Bush.
  • Late deciders split their vote. Among those who decided which candidate to vote for in the past three days – that small segment of undecided voters that both candidates were fighting for – 48 percent voted for Gore and 46 percent voted for Bush.
  • Voters in many different age groups that voted for Mr. Clinton in the last election split their vote this time around. Among 18-to-29-year-olds, 48 percent voted for Gore, 46 percent for Bush. Forty-nine percent of 30-to-44-year-olds voted for Bush, 48 percent for Gore. Forty-nine percent of those age 45 to 59 voted for Bush, 48 percent for Gore. All of those groups went to Mr. Clinton in 1996.
  • The vote was close in the Midwest; 49 percent voted for Bush, and 48 percent for Gore. The West gave Gore a two-point edge, 48 percent to 46 percent.
  • Voters in the suburbs were divided; 49 percent went for Bush, and 47 percent went for Gore.
  • Middle-class voters also split their vote, Bush got 49 percent of their vote, and Gore received 48 percent.
Gore was not able to capture the support of all Clinton voters. 15 percent of those who voted for President Clinton in 1996 voted for Bush in this election. In such a close election, that 15 percent could have made a difference.


As was true in 1996, voters said that the candidates’ positions on issues was more influential in their voting decision than the candidates’ leadership and personal characteristics. Sixty-two percent cited issues, and 35 percent cited personal qualities.

The basis on which voters made their decision influenced their choice of candidate. Those who weighed issue positions more heavily in their voting decision went for Gore over Bush by 55 percent to 40 percent. Those to hom personal characteristics mattered more voted for Bush by 62 percent to 35 percent.

Voters said that the most important issue in their vote was the economy and jobs, cited by 18 percent. Fifteen percent of voters said education was most important, followed by taxes and Social Security with 14 percent. Twelve percent named world affairs, 8 percent said health care mattered most, and 7 percent said their top issue was Medicare and prescription drugs.

There was an overall preference for smaller rather than larger government in this election. When asked directly, 53 percent of voters thought government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals, and 43 percent felt government should do more to help solve problems. This trend mirrors attitudes found in CBS News polls conducted prior to the election.

But the evidence suggests that the electorate – as well as some of the voting groups who split their vote, such as independents and Catholics - is conflicted on the role and size of government. At the same time that they said they prefer a smaller government, voters support specific programs and policies which involve significant government spending and control. These findings argue against a smaller government:

  • 35 percent would like the budget surplus used to strengthen Social Security, making it the top priority. Twenty-eight percent prefer a tax cut, and 24 percent say debt reduction should be the priority.
  • When it comes to helping senior citizens pay for prescription drugs, 57 percent want the federal government to increase funds for Medicare, and 36 percent want the government to work through the private sector by providing funds for private insurance companies to do so.
  • By 78 percent to 16 percent, a large margin, voters preferred the government try to fix failing public schools rather than provide vouchers to help parents pay for private school tuition. Ballot propositions for school voucher programs in Michigan and California were defeated in this election.
  • Sixty percent support stricter gun control legislation, and 36 percent oppose it. Colorado voters passed a proposition calling for background checks for purchases made at gun shows.
In one area, voters supported transferring some of the authority of the federal government to the individual. Fifty-seven percent supported a plan allowing people to invest some of their Social Security taxes in the stock market. Thirty-nine percent were opposed to this measure. Seventy percent of voters currently have investments in the stock market, so presumably voters now feel more comfortable managing their retirement money.

Although both Bush and Gore articulated opposing views of government, neither candidate was able to generate a popular mandate for his vision. Forty-six percent of voters said Gore shares their view of government, and 51 percent said Bush does.

There was a significant gender gap on views abouthe size of government. Men supported smaller government, while women were more open to larger government. Among men, 36 percent say government should do more to solve problems, and 60 percent think government is doing too many things better left to individuals. Among women, 48 percent say government should do more and 46 percent say it is doing too many things better left to individuals. Issue priorities among men and women were different as well. Men were more likely to list taxes as the most important factor in their vote, while women were more likely to cite education.

Finally, there was no clear consensus among voters on whether environmental issues or economic growth is more important. When asked which was more important to them, protecting the environment or encouraging economic growth, 48 percent chose economic growth and 46 percent chose the environment.

Candidate Qualities

Both candidates were seen by voters as seriously flawed, and nearly half of their own voters expressed reservations about them. Forty-five percent of Gore voters and 42 percent of Bush voters said they had reservations about their candidate.

Honesty was the key personal quality voters were looking for in this election, with 24 percent of voters saying it was the personal quality that mattered most to them in their choice of candidate. Fifteen percent said experience was number one, 14 percent wanted a strong leader, 13 percent wanted someone who understands complex issues, 13 percent wanted someone who would have good judgment in a crisis and 12 percent wanted someone who cares about people like them. Only 2 percent were looking for a likeable candidate.

Voters who said honesty mattered most went strongly for Bush; he received 80 percent of their votes, while Gore received only 15 percent. But among voters for whom experience was most important, Gore came out ahead by a similar large margin, 82 percent to 17 percent.

Neither candidate received accolades from voters on their personal characteristics and qualifications for the presidency. Gore was seen by voters as a panderer, while Bush was perceived as not quite smart enough to be president.

  • While both suffered from perceptions among most voters that they would say anything to get elected, 74% said Gore would say anything, and 58% said the same for Bush.
  • More than half of voters felt either candidate has the knowledge required to serve as president and could handle international affairs, but Gore had the advantage over Bush in this area. Fifty-four percent said Bush has the knowledge to serve effectively as president, and 67 percent said this was true of Gore. Moreover, Gore was seen as better equipped than Bush to deal with an international crisis. Sixty-four percent said Gore could do so, and 55 percent said Bush could.
  • Significant numbers of voters questioned each candidate’s honesty – the most important candidate quality in this election. Ffty-two percent thought Gore was honest and trustworthy, and 45 percent said he was not. Bush receives similar ratings: 55 percent said he is honest, and 40 percent said he is not.

The Economy

Voter’s evaluations of the economy were extremely positive. Eighty-five percent said the economy is excellent or good, and 14 percent said it is not good or poor. Voter outlook for the future is similarly optimistic; 28 percent said they expect it to get better in the next year, and 57 percent expect it will stay the same. Only 12 percent thought it will worsen. Voters are feeling the favorable economy in their own pocketbooks as well; 50 percent said their personal financial situation is better than a year ago, and 38 percent said it is the same. Only 11 percent are doing worse now than they were one year ago.

Voters weren’t worried about the stock market either. Fifty-four percent are not too or not at all worried about it, and 43 percent are worried. Of those, 7 percent are very worried and 36 percent are somewhat worried.

The Clinton Factor

Voters’ optimism about the economy should have helped Gore. But Bill Clinton was a strong – and sometimes polarizing - factor in this election. On the positive side, his job approval rating is high and 68 percent of voters give him credit for the current economy. Negatively, questions about the scandals associated with him continue, and could have offset positive feelings about his presidency.

Fifty-seven percent of voters approved of the job Mr. Clinton has done as president; these voters went for Gore over Bush by 77 percent to 20 percent. But among the 41 percent who disapprove of Mr. Clinton’s job as president, the vote went to Bush by 88 percent to 9 percent.

Seventy percent of voters said their vote was not about Mr. Clinton, and among these voters Gore had a lead of 53 percent to 43 percent. But where the president was a factor in the election, his impact was negative rather than positive by nearly two to one. Eighteen percent said their vote was to oppose Mr. Clinton, and 10 percent said their vote was in support of him.

The scandals continue to hover over views of Mr. Clinton’s presidency. Sixty-eight percent say history will remember him more for his scandals, and 29 percent say he will be remembered for his leadership. Forty-four percent said the scandals were important to their vote today, and they went for Bush.

Bush voters were especially motivated by dislike of the president. Seventy-one percent of Bush voters said the scandals were important to their vote, and 34 percent said their vote was to oppose Mr. Clinton.

Change Vs. Continuity

With an incumbent vice president on the ballot and a healthy economy, did voters want more of the same or were they looking for change in this election? Given the closeness of the election, it’s clear that there is no public mandate in one direction or anothe. There are indications that many are happy with the way things are in this country. Sixty-five percent said the country is on the right track, higher than in 1996 when 53 percent of voters felt this way, and re-elected the incumbent president. Fifty-six percent of voters said they want the country to stay on the course it is now, and fewer – 41 percent - said we need a fresh start. Forty-eight percent expect life for the next generation of Americans will be better.

But notably, 57 percent of voters thought this country is on the wrong moral track, and this attitude, in conjunction with negative feelings about the Clinton scandals and honesty as the most influential candidate quality, points to a conflict at the core of this election. Voters seem to want a continuation of the good economy they have grown used to, but have concerns about the country’s moral values. No doubt the latter results from the Clinton scandals.

Candidate Support

Although important voting groups split their vote between the two candidates, attempts were made by both men to generate enthusiasm among their core voters.

Forty-three percent of voters reported having reservations about their candidate – about the same as in 1996. But, in this election Bush was able to mobilize some of the key Republican voter groups more effectively than either Bob Dole in 1996, or Bush’s father in 1992:

  • This year, Bush did a better job than previous Republican candidates were able to do mobilizing his core party supporters. In this election, 91 percent of Republicans voted for Bush; in 1996, 80 percent voted for Dole and 73 percent voted for President Bush.
  • Eighty percent of the white religious right voted for Bush in this election; in 1996, 65 percent voted for Dole.
  • Bush also got more of the conservative vote than recent Republican candidates. Eighty-one percent of conservatives voted for Bush this year, up from 71 percent in 1996 and 65 percent in 1992.
  • Efforts by the National Rifle Association to mobilize voters may have paid off this year, as gun owners went for Bush this year more strongly than they supported Dole in 1996. Sixty-one percent of gun owners voted for Bush this year, compared to 51 percent who voted for Dole in 1996.
But Bush’s efforts to reach out to minority voters fell flat. Blacks and Hispanics voted heavily Democratic, as did gays.

As for Gore, although he was able to win the support of voting groups that typically vote Democratic, his success in this election did not match that of President Clinton in 1996. As mentioned earlier, younger voters who supported Mr. Clinton in the past divided their vote this year between the two candidates. Catholics, who also supported Mr. Clinton in the past, divided their vote as well. But Gore did well with core Democratic supporters - union households, Democrats, liberals.

The Gender Gap

As was seen in most pre-election poll, the gender gap was in force during this election. Men voted for Bush over Gore by 53 percent to 42 percent. Women went for Gore, 54 percent to 43 percent.

This year, women led men in the Democratic vote by a 12-point margin; 54 percent of women voted Democratic compared to 42 percent of men. In 1996, the margin was 11 points (54 percent of women and 43 percent of men voted Democratic). In 1992 this gap shrunk to 4 points, but in 1988 it was 8 points, in 1984 it was 7 points and in 1980 the margin on the Democratic vote was 9 points.

How Did Nader Affect Gore?

Nationally, Ralph Nader’s presence on the ballot hurt Gore far more than it did Bush. If just Gore and Bush had been on the ballot, 47 percent of Nader voters would have voted for Gore, and 21 percent would have voted for Bush. But 30 percent of Nader voters would not have voted at all.

The impact of Nader on Gore was more severe among men than women. Men who voted for Nader would have voted mostly for Gore – 57 percent said that, 18 percent would have voted for Bush and 23 percent would not have voted. Among women, the impact on Gore was less severe, and many would not have voted at all – 35 percent would have voted for Gore, 26 percent for Bush and 37 percent would have stayed home.