September 23, 1998
Margaret Warner is joined by three pollsters to examine the latest opinion surveys on President Clinton.
MARGARET WARNER: More than 22 million Americans watched the videotape of President Clinton's grand jury testimony as it was being broadcast on Monday and countless millions more have seen extended excerpts. Their reactions are being closely watched by members of Congress and the administration as they wrestle with how to bring the Clinton-Lewinsky matter to an end. For some perspective on how the public saw it we're joined by three pollsters: Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press; and two pollsters who advise many members of Congress: Democrat Celinda Lake and Republican Ed Goeas. Welcome all.
MARGARET WARNER: Andy, first to your results. You were polling both before and after the videotape. Set the scene for us. Where did the president stand just before the release of the videotape?
ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Research Center: Well, by the weekend, we did a survey Saturday and Sunday, and by the weekend we saw the Starr Report taking a delayed toll on the president's popularity, and on measures of support for the continuance of his presidency in light of the Lewinsky scandal. For the first time we saw -
MARGARET WARNER: We have a graph maybe can put up there.
ANDREW KOHUT: In terms of presidential approval we saw a small decline from 61 percent approved to 55 percent approved, first time in a year and a half that the president has been blow - meaningfully below 60 percent.
MARGARET WARNER: And then what happened when the videotape was released?
ANDREW KOHUT: Ironically, and ironic irony is the name of the game in terms of public opinion here, the president's approval ratings went back up - 62 percent approved - 33 percent disapproved both in the polls that were taken on Monday and our poll, which was taken over a two-night period.
MARGARET WARNER: And what did voters tell you about - I mean, did they find his performance persuasive?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, despite the rebound in his approval ratings, this was not a good performance from the point of view of public reaction. By a margin of 38 to 50 percent, the public said that the president didn't make a very good case for himself. This graphic shows that a small percentage, about 20 percent of the public who said they saw all or most of the video had a better view of Clinton's performance. But most people saw clips, and that group - the largest majority of the public - said by a margin of 34 to 51 percent the president didn't do very well.
MARGARET WARNER: And how about on the key question that so many members of Congress are looking at, whether he committed perjury in that grand jury testimony, has anybody asked that direct question, whether the public thinks he committed perjury?
ANDREW KOHUT: The NBC News Poll said, was the president telling the whole truth in his testimony to a sample of people who said they watched at least some of this, and by a margin of 26 to 60 percent, the public said he was not, and therefore, we find the public less sympathetic, saying they were less personally sympathetic to the president, both people who watched all of the proceedings and people who watched some of it. He didn't score any credibility points with the public based upon this performance, despite the uptick in his approval ratings.
MARGARET WARNER: So what did this do let's say first to the number of people who want the president just to act himself, to resign?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, prior to the - over the weekend we found a percentage of people saying the president should resign rising from 20 percent to 34 percent. Again, the erosion that I spoke of, but by Tuesday night -
MARGARET WARNER: Once the videotape came out.
ANDREW KOHUT: Once the videotapes had come back, we see public opinion, his regaining some support at least in this measure with only 26 percent saying he should resign, again, a softening of this - the erosion of support that the president has had. We see the same pattern in the questions that deal - this subjunctive questions that say if the president did this or that, should he be impeached, again, most people say no, but somewhat more than feel he should be impeached and felt that way prior to the release of the Starr Report.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, of course, it's members of Congress who are going to have to make a decision now. What does the public think if the President doesn't resign? What do they want members of Congress to do?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well they say pretty clearly they want something done. Very few people say nothing should be done for the president but most vote on these questions which give three alternatives for the reprimand or formal reprimand or censure option - 44 percent - in our survey only 26 percent say impeach, but only 26 percent also say no action.
MARGARET WARNER: And is that any different than it was before the release of the videotape?
ANDREW KOHUT: No. Those numbers have held. We've seen no difference when you - in public reaction when you put in this -
MARGARET WARNER: This sort of alternative.
ANDREW KOHUT: The alternative of censure versus impeachment or no action.
MARGARET WARNER: Is this consistent with what you're seeing in all these other polls that have been taken too in terms of the impact on the videotapes released?
ED GOEAS, Republican Pollster: No, it's not. Basically, we see in all the polls, particularly on the presidential job approval over time. Now, Andy may have had one sampling that showed his numbers turning worse, but it's not necessarily showing much difference in terms of the environment. Most of the surveys are somewhere around the 60 percent job approval. But I think you're looking to the wrong place for the job approval to change. As Celinda and I have found in our Datagram Survey and some of the other work that we've done together, the presidential job approval is not where to look for the impact of the scandal. I believe that, using polling terms, that the presidential job approval rating has become polluted to a certain extent over the last seven or eight months, that after seven or eight months of talking about it, the president's job approval rating is high, the economy is doing well. We're seeing that the job approval rating for the president is nothing more than an economic indicator, that it's not truly reflecting the impact of the scandal the way you see in other measurements, for example, his favorability rating, his personal approval rating, which has shown as consistent decline over time and intensifying recently.
MARGARET WARNER: Yes. I think we just put up one from "U.S. News & World Report." Do you want to comment on that.
ED GOEAS: This is his favorable/unfavorable rating. We hit him at 55 percent unfavorable, 40 percent favorable on this favorable rating. In fact, in the same survey we showed his unfavorable rating is now higher than that of Kenneth Starr.
MARGARET WARNER: And that's a change?
ED GOEAS: That is a change. They had done a very good job over the last eight months of demonizing Ken Starr; his number is coming down. We now see this event pulling the president's numbers down to the same range.
MARGARET WARNER: Is this a potential vulnerability for the president? Which do you think is more important, the job approval or the personal approval?
CELINDA LAKE, Democratic Pollster: Well, I think the voters of America hired him to be their president; they didn't marry him. And so I think it's his job approval that's more important than personal feelings. I do think it's impacted personal feelings about him, but people think he's doing a good job; people think he's trying to get back to that job. And I think that you don't fire somebody in this country who's doing a good job. People feel very strongly about that.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you this: How do you explain the findings that Andy came up with, which is - and NBC did too and so on - that a majority of people really don't think he told the truth in the grand jury and they still don't know - a greater number want him impeached. I mean, is the public saying that they don't think perjury in this case is an impeachable offense?
CELINDA LAKE: Well, I think that the public thinks that he lied, but they think that he lied about a personal matter, and they think that - and they were angry at him, and, in fact, in polling that Ed and I did together, they were angry about that portion of the law that they thought was told to them. They actually weren't that angry or upset about what he told Congress or what he told a grand jury. They were angry at the piece where they thought he had turned to the American public and lied to them. But the point of the matter is when he said he was going to get the deficit down, he did, when he said he was going to get the economy up, he did. And that's what they hire him for, to be their president.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you explain on the videotape that they don't think he told the truth on the videotape, but they still haven't changed appreciably what they want -
ED GOEAS: But as Andy's own numbers show, it took a week for those numbers on the Starr Report coming out to have some impact and analyze that there's going to be all of a sudden instant impact in this case is just false. The bottom line is, is that the American public is at a point now where they're still going through and looking at the process. I disagree with Celinda completely, that they aren't concerned. They're deeply concerned over the fact that the President of the United States lied under oath in a grand jury. They're deeply concerned that he lied to the American public. And what we see in the numbers on impeachment is that they don't know what the punishment should be. Andy's numbers show 25 percent - only 25 percent believe nothing should happen. Most of the public polls are showing -- only 20 percent showing nothing should happen, and I think the question now becomes as everything sinks in about what the President has done to the American public, they will begin focusing over time on what the punishment should be. But even to ask questions about censure, there was another poll that came out today that showed that only 23 percent of the American public could even tell you what it meant. 43 percent on the surface said right away I have no idea what that means. So to say that the American public is focusing on censure versus resignation versus impeachment, they're just not there yet. I think that time will come in future months.
MARGARET WARNER: How much impact - we heard Newt Gingrich say today we're not going to let this process be dictated by the polls. But how much impact is this having, Celinda Lake, these polls on members of Congress whom you know and others?
CELINDA LAKE: Well, I think a perhaps different impact on the Democrats and the Republicans. I think that on the Democratic side we've been both very concerned about the impact on turnout and seeing major portions of the Democratic electorate potentially demoralized by this process, and then also -
MARGARET WARNER: You're talking about for the November elections.
CELINDA LAKE: Right. The November election. But also reassured by what appeared to be the president's comeback. I think the public thinks they know everything they need to know here, and I think they have come to the conclusion it would be bad for the country not to get back to business. And I think they'll blame whoever they think is extending this process beyond what is reasonable.
ED GOEAS: And this is where the problem lay. There's a problem there for the Democrats. The White House's whole strategy at this point is to use polling numbers to convince people that there should be no action at all, that people don't want things to move forward; they want everything to stop today. The members of the House and Senate know there's an election coming; they would like to get this off the table and have it acted upon. So you have the White House trying to keep that gavel from coming down on impeachment hearings because they know that's the beginning of the legal process, as opposed to the public opinion process.
MARGARET WARNER: Andy, you also had a finding about how the public feels about the Republican leadership.
ANDY KOHUT: Well, I think what we found was some backlash, the percentage of people saying that they disapprove of the congressional leadership increasing from 37 to 44 percent in response to the airing of this tape, which by a two to one margin the public has said they did not want to see aired; they didn't think it was a good idea. But I'd also like to add just one point, that these approval ratings are not a measure of economic well-being. In 1987, in 1974 when both Reagan and Nixon were under fire for Iran-Contra and Watergate, respectively, good economic times in '87, good economic times in '73, the approval ratings went down, and two or three polls this weekend showed Clinton's approval ratings going down.
MARGARET WARNER: Celinda Lake, do the Democrats see an opening in this congressional - in these congressional numbers? Is this why we're seeing, for instance, today some of the Democratic leadership being directly critical of the Republican leadership for what they're saying is unfair or perpetuating it?
CELINDA LAKE: I think that what Democrats have universally called for is let's have a swift judicious, fair, and bipartisan process, and then let's get back to the business of the country. And I think the entire country and certainly the Democrats want to focus on things like Social Security and HMO's, and education, the things that are affecting the families of the voters, not the things that the beltway's obsessed with.
MARGARET WARNER: Is this a problem for Republicans potentially?
ED GOEAS: No. In fact, you know, I have a great deal of respect for the work that Andy does, but our own surveys showed that job approval of Republicans in Congress was at 45 percent approve, 45 percent disapprove, very close to what you had in your numbers, but that's an institutional measurement. What we also found is job approval of their own congressman was at 70 percent, and, in fact, it was 12 points higher for Republicans than Democrats. I think the big concern right now is the Republicans - and I'm very proud of them - have tried to be very judicious on how they're moving forward. The other day on discussing the tape, the reason why it took a day longer is they gave every member of the committee an opportunity to speak up, so it took an extra day, and then they were still attacked for being partisan. I think the Democrats right now - the only hope they have is try to activate their base by making this a partisan proceeding.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, I'm sure we'll have a lot of arguments about who's making it partisan, but thank you all three very much.
CELINDA LAKE: Thank you.