TOPICS > Politics

Presidential Debates: The Present

October 4, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: We begin with the latest polling data on the current state of the presidential race. It comes from Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Welcome back, Andy.

ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Research Center: Happy to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. What does–what do your latest–what does your latest poll tell us about the standings in the presidential race right now?

ANDREW KOHUT: Essentially they’re just what they were at the beginning of September. Bill Clinton has a 51-35 percent lead over Bob Dole, and that’s statistically unchanged from what it was early in September. In effect, Bob Dole has gotten nowhere over the past four weeks.

MARGARET WARNER: And what do the numbers tell you about why he’s making no discernible headway?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, it seems he’s not giving people a reason to think that he might do a better job than Bill Clinton. It’s just that simple. Now, when you look behind the numbers, you see that despite the fact that Bill Clinton’s image has improved, and the public has a better image of the job he’s done, when we ask people what kind of grade do you give him for the first four years, there are more C’s, D’s, and F’s than there are A’s and B’s. And Dole is just unable to exploit that. And I’ll show you why within the numbers. Among the people who give Bill Clinton a C for his first three years, only 46 percent say they’re going to vote for Bob Dole, and as many as 35 percent say they’re going to vote for Bill Clinton. Dole hasn’t been able to give those people with reservations about Clinton a reason to believe that he might do a better job. And the same thing is true with the economy.

While people have better attitudes, opinions about their own economies, you take the 45 percent of the public or so who still rates their financial shape poorly, and they don’t–they’re not leaning toward Bob Dole. In fact, even among the Republicans who say, uh, they’re having a hard time with it, they’re more likely to vote for Bill Clinton than the Republicans who are in good shape. So if Bob Dole can’t convince Republicans who are having a hard time of it that they should vote for him and give him a chance, that’s, that’s a measure of his ineffectiveness.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. So what does your survey tell you about which voters still are moveable? I mean, how many voters are there either for Perot or undecided or softly for Clinton that theoretically at least Dole could peel away?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, we asked people who are not voting for Bob Dole, is there a chance you might, and 16 percent said yes, so we have a base of 16 that could be added to the 35 to theoretically give him 51 percent. And those voters tend to be more often women, surprisingly, because of the big gender gap, more often younger voters.

MARGARET WARNER: So just stop–wait a minute–let me stop you for a minute. So you’re saying–so everyone says Bill Clinton has this huge gender gap advantage, all these women for him. You’re saying a lot of those women are not that firmly for him?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, women by and large are firmer for Clinton than, than not. But if you look at the swing voters, they’re more–

MARGARET WARNER: They’re still available.

ANDREW KOHUT: They’re still available. Younger voters, independents who lean Republican, there’s an awful lot of cross-over but people are really uncomfortable about voting for Bill Clinton, who might be persuaded by Bob Dole, presumably in these debates, that maybe they should give him a second look.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now you also had some interesting figures, though about how many people considered themselves very likely to watch this upcoming debate.

ANDREW KOHUT: Yeah. Like interest in the news about this campaign and like attention to this campaign, generally interest in these debates, while it’s pretty extensive, it’s a lot lower than it was in 1992. Only 43 percent say they’re very likely to watch. Four years ago it was 67 percent in 1988, 1984, it was in the 50’s. So less than a majority are really enthused.

MARGARET WARNER: And among those who do watch the debate, or even those who don’t, what again historically we’ve heard the historians say, when it has made a difference and when it hasn’t–when does it actually move poll numbers?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, we’ve had six debates since 1960. Three of these debates have been–


ANDREW KOHUT: Six sets of debates, six presidential candidates–sets of candidates have debated. In three of these cases the numbers have moved. In 1960, if you look at the horse race, Kennedy opened up the small lead after the first debate. In 1980, Reagan was able to stop the trend toward Carter, and in 1982, Perot went from single digits to double digits on the basis of his performance in the debates. And that might have been crucial to Clinton’s victory, in fact, but in ’88, in ’84, in, in 1976, those were really more confirming debates, where the candidates had big leads and voters came and made judgments that more or less were like the judgments that the had prior to watching the debates. All right. Well, thanks, Andy.