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Survey of College Students Reveals Candidate's Platform Is More Important Than Experience

BOSTON (November 3, 2000) College students don't care whether a potential president smoked pot or served in the military--they just want to know where he or she stands on the issues. They also want a leader who is competent, honest, and of good moral character.

Those are just some of the findings of the Student Choice 2000 Survey, an innovative, online poll of college students conducted by PBS's FRONTLINE in partnership with market researcher DiscoverWhy and campus portal provider Mascot Network. The survey--taken Oct. 27-30 of 555 students connected to Mascot Network's college Internet portal--required students to fill out a questionnaire on their political opinions before watching three, six-minute video clips from "The Choice 2000," FRONTLINE's two-hour dual biography of George W. Bush and Al Gore. Using DiscoverWhy's patented Web-based research system, students then answered a series of questions regarding their views on the coming presidential election.

In addition to polling respondents on their political party affiliation (if any) and their choice for president, the Student Choice 2000 Survey asked students to rank the importance of a variety of candidate attributes, including honesty, experience, moral character, and military service. Of those attributes, 29 percent of college students ranked competency as the most important quality for a presidential candidate, followed by honesty (25 percent) and moral character (22 percent). Less than 1 percent (0.7 percent) thought a candidate's history of military service was of importance, while just 0.4 percent thought prior substance use was relevant. Interestingly, survey participants didn't perceive a candidate's lack of experience to be as big a handicap as deficiencies in other areas, such as leadership or character.

When it came to choosing a candidate's most important attributes, students split along party lines. For example, while 45 percent of college students who identified themselves as Gore supporters ranked competency as the most important quality in a president, Bush supporters believe moral character (36 percent) and honesty (32 percent) are most important.

Even more important than competency or character, however, was a candidate's stand on the issues. Sixty-five percent of all participants in the Student Choice 2000 Survey said that a candidate's platform was more important than personal attributes.

"It was interesting to note that viewing excerpts from 'The Choice 2000' seemed to affect some students' perceptions of the candidates," said Michael Sullivan, executive producer for FRONTLINE. "While viewing the documentary reaffirmed most students' presidential choice, a significant percentage reported that viewing 'The Choice 2000' had caused them to reconsider their vote.'"

For example, of the 212 students who identified themselves as Gore supporters before watching "The Choice 2000," 5 percent said they were less likely to vote for the vice president after viewing the FRONTLINE footage. Sixty-six percent were as likely and 27 percent were more likely to vote for Gore. In contrast, only 2 percent of students who previously identified themselves as Bush supporters said they would be less likely to vote for Bush after viewing parts of "The Choice 2000;" 56 percent said they were as likely and 41 percent more likely to support the Texas governor.

Participants in the Student Choice 2000 Survey were recruited by Mascot Network, which provides colleges and universities with customized Web portals that offer students access to campus information--including an online student directory--as well as a distance learning center and discounted goods and services. "Our network of 65 colleges and universities and 500,000 students provided an ideal pool from which to draw the sample for the Student Choice 2000 Survey," said Jaja Jackson, president and co-founder of Mascot Network. "College students were able to log onto the survey from their dorm rooms, watch the video clips from 'The Choice 2000' and immediately share their views on the coming election."

The Student Choice 2000 Survey, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent, was conducted using DiscoverWhy's patented Internet-based research system that provides instantaneous feedback. As a result of this technology, students were able to rate the candidates on a moment-by-moment basis with a click of their mouse as they watched the video clips from the FRONTLINE documentary. Of particular interest was the response by undecided voters: These students, for example, reacted favorably to a scene from "The Choice 2000" in which Bush Appointments Secretary Clay Johnson describes the governor's willingness to take a politically unpopular stance on the death penalty because he felt it was his "constitutional responsibility" to do so.

Undecided students reacted negatively, however, to a scene in which Al Gore's former press secretary discusses the vice president's tendency to exaggerate and tell people what they want to hear. A scene in which Gore speaks fervently to a group of tobacco farmers about his lifelong attachment to the tobacco industry prompted particularly negative responses from undecided college voters.

"The Internet provides an unprecedented opportunity to gather data quicker and more efficiently," said DiscoverWhy founder and chairman Dr. Jack Maguire, who noted that the company's research system was used to provide immediate voter feedback following the recent Bush-Gore debates. "As a result of DiscoverWhy's Internet-based technology, we can now determine the exact themes, ideas, and words that move people."

Essentially, Maguire said, the DiscoverWhy research method seems to "accelerate" the natural decision-making process that all voters go through on their way to election day. "As students recorded their views while watching 'The Choice 2000,' he said, "you can actually see in the data where they started to shift their perceptions and question their commitment to one candidate or the other."

FRONTLINE's "The Choice 2000" airs Monday, November 6, at 10 P.M. on PBS (check local listings). The documentary may also be viewed in its entirety on FRONTLINE at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/choice2000/video/watch.html. (For easier online viewing, the Web version of "The Choice 2000" is divided into twelve video chapters.)

FRONTLINE (http://www.pbs.org/frontline/) is PBS's premier public affairs documentary series produced by WGBH Boston. Since its 1983 debut, FRONTLINE's 380 documentaries have explored the critical issues of our contemporary lives. From Whitewater to Shakespeare, breast implants to the Gulf War, health care to the criminal justice system, FRONTLINE has established a record for producing in-depth, intelligent journalistic investigations. For its efforts, the series has garnered every major broadcasting and journalism honor, including numerous Emmys, Peabodys, and duPont-Columbia Journalism Awards.

Mascot Network (http://www.mascotnetwork.com/) is the leading provider of higher education enterprise portals for colleges and universities. Founded in 1998 and headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., Mascot Network's Web-based service is campus-specific, with content designed to strengthen and extend the university community and deepen the student's relationship with their school. Mascot Network counts among its clients University of Alabama, Columbia University, Florida International University, Merrimack College, and Providence College.

DiscoverWhy (http://www.discoverwhy.com/) is an Application Service Provider specializing in innovative market research solutions delivered over the Internet. A pioneering leader in Web-based real-time consumer research, the company's headquarters are located in Bedford, Mass.

Press contact for FRONTLINE: (617) 300-3500
Erin Martin Kane [erin_martin_kane@wgbh.org]

Press contact for Mascot Network:
Chris Conway [cconway@mascot.com] (781) 472-7637

Press contact for DiscoverWhy: (781) 271-1040
Mark Maguire [mmaguire@discoverwhy.com]

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