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"Clinton Factor" May Be Hurting Gore in Presidential Race

"Clinton Factor" May Be Hurting Gore in Presidential Race

Voters' low personal regard for president appears to cost Gore about 8 percentage points in contest with Bush

by David W. Moore


PRINCETON, NJ -- The idea that Al Gore's presidential campaign may be hurt by the vice president's close association with President Clinton has been widely discussed almost since the Monica Lewinsky scandal became public in early 1998. Both Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush seem to recognize this fact -- Gore by immediately addressing the issue in the first televised debate he had with Bill Bradley, and subsequently by saying that while Clinton made a mistake, "the people" want to move on to other issues; and Bush, by constantly referring to the corruption in the "Clinton-Gore" administration, careful to ensure that Gore is not seen as separate from the president.

A special analysis of Gallup poll results among likely voters in January, and again in February-March, suggests that the "Clinton factor" may indeed be significantly hurting Gore's campaign, and that the net effect may be about 8 percentage points in the difference between Gore's and Bush's support. That difference is enough to change the race from one in which Bush currently enjoys a slight, though significant, lead of six points, to one that would give Gore the lead by a bare two points -- essentially a tie.

Identifying the Disaffected Clinton Supporters
In several previous Gallup surveys, voters were asked whether or not Gore's close ties to Clinton made them feel less favorably toward Gore, and about three out of ten voters said yes. But this question, while indicating some problem for the vice president, could not provide a precise estimate of how much potential electoral support Gore was losing to Bush.

A different way to identify potential loss of support for Gore involves asking respondents whether they approve or disapprove of Clinton's job performance, and then whether they approve or disapprove of Clinton "as a person." Overall, both in January and again in the two most recent Gallup polls, about six in ten voters said they approved of Clinton's job performance, but about half of those then said they disapproved of Clinton as a person. Gallup identifies this latter group as the "disaffected Clinton supporters" -- Americans who support the president in his official capacity, but dislike his personal behavior.

Disaffected Supporters Are Unusual
The emergence of this "disaffected" group is an unusual situation in American politics, and has almost certainly been caused by the Clinton impeachment scandal in 1998-1999. By contrast, in the 1980s President Ronald Reagan's ratings "as a person" were significantly higher than his job performance ratings -- even when the latter were in the same range as Clinton's ratings are today. In three of the polls about Reagan between 1981 and 1988, for example, his job approval ratings were above the 60% level, similar to Clinton's ratings now -- and in each of those polls, Reagan's approval "as a person" was between 16 and 17 points higher than his job performance rating, at about the 80% level.

Another indication that Clinton's situation may be unique is provided by the comparison of similar ratings for Hillary Clinton and for Vice President Al Gore. Over the past two years, when Gore and, separately, Hillary Clinton, were rated overall, and then "as a person," there were no differences in the two ratings for each person. In the same polls, similar ratings for the president did produce the "disaffected" group noted above. While neither Gore nor Hillary Clinton received higher ratings "as a person" than the overall ratings, as did Reagan, they clearly did not getlowerratings as did Clinton.

Disaffected Clinton Supporters Key to Gore's Lagging in Presidential Race
The existence of this disaffected group of Clinton supporters appears to be related to Gore's trailing Bush in the polls, despite what should be considerable advantages for Gore -- being part of an administration that is in office during what many Americans call the best economic conditions they have ever experienced, and during a time when there is an absence of major overseas entanglements or foreign wars. But, for the disaffected group, perceptions of Clinton's moral lapses have apparently tainted their perceptions of the vice president.

A special statistical analysis of these voters, that takes into account their party identification, shows that both in January, and again in February-March, they constitute a significant drag on Gore's support. The analysis further suggests that these voters, who approve of Clinton's job performance but disapprove of Clinton as a person, are -- on average -- eight percentage points less likely to support Gore over Bush than are voters whobothapprove of Clinton's job performance and approve of Clinton as a person. If these disaffected voters gave positive marks to Clinton on both dimensions (as was the case for Reagan, and is currently the case for Hillary Clinton and Al Gore), Gore's election standing would likely be improved. The analysis also shows that these disaffected Clinton supporters are particularly likely to give Gore low ratings on a "moral climate" dimension in comparison with Bush, lending support to the idea that their distaste for Clinton's personal behavior has affected their perceptions of Gore.

Of course, there are many other issues and personal characteristics of the candidates that help explain the overall presidential vote, and as the campaign proceeds, it may be that the "Clinton factor" recedes in importance. For now, however, Clinton's personal behavior appears to be a major influence on the race -- something that Bush will try to exploit, and Gore will try to minimize.

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