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Providence Journal-Bulletin/Brown University survey finds widespread citizen frustration, willingness to consider a new approach to governing
PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Less than a week before the presidential primary season swings into high gear, a new national survey has found that a majority of people question the effectiveness of American democracy and nearly half believe, in the words of Iran-Contra figure and talk-radio host Oliver North, "the political system is like poison ivy, and the only solution is to pull it up from its roots."
The national survey, sponsored by the Providence Journal-Bulletin with results reported in today's edition [Sunday, Feb. 11], was conducted Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, 1996, by Darrell M. West, professor of political science at Brown University; Thomas J. Anton, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy; Jack Combs, the Center's research administrator; Edward Abrahams, director of government and community relations; and Christine Heenan, associate director of government and community relations. It was based on a random sample of 927 adults nationwide. Overall, it had a margin of error of about plus or minus 3 percentage points. The poll is part of an upcoming public affairs conference at Brown University on "Democracy in America: Does It Still Work?"
Respondents gave low marks to the decision-making process in national government, with 74 percent ranking it poor or only fair, while 23 percent felt the decision-making process was either good or excellent. State government was rated somewhat higher, with 59 percent saying their state's decision-making process was poor or only fair, compared to 34 percent rating state decision-making good or excellent.
The poll results suggest widespread frustration and pessimism toward public officials, and a willingness among many to toss out the system itself. Seventy-nine percent of respondents said they believe public officials advocate what is popular over what is right, and only 14 percent said they trust public officials to do what is right most of the time. One-third thought the American political system would get worse in the future.
"This poll paints a picture of a volatile electorate," West said. "Voters are so frustrated that they're willing to consider a new approach to governing. That's good news for candidates perceived as outsiders and bad news for well-established politicians."
The so-called "Republican revolution" seems to be faltering in the mind of the public. Sixty percent said that so far the Republicans have not brought about a fundamental change in public policy, while 32 percent felt they had. And when asked whether government does "too much" or "not enough" to solve the problems of most Americans, 69 percent answered "not enough," compared with 23 percent who answered "too much." The sense that Republicans have failed to bring about fundamental change in Washington may explain why only 53 percent said it mattered to them which party controls the U.S. Congress after the 1996 election, while 71 percent said it mattered to them who wins the 1996 presidential race.
The survey also captured the increasing mobility and decreasing civic involvement of many Americans. Forty-one percent of respondents had moved at least once in the last five years, with 9 percent moving three or more times. Similarly, 38 percent reported that they or their spouse had changed employers at least once in the last five years, with 9 percent having changed jobs three times or more. One in seven reported they or a member of their family had lost their job in the last year. And while 39 percent said at one time they had belonged to a PTA, neighborhood group or some other community organization, 80 percent said they now belong to no community organizations, or only one or two.
When asked what was the most important event that had occurred so far in this presidential campaign, the largest percentage cited Steve Forbes and the flat tax (9 percent), the budget negotiations and government shutdown (8 percent), Whitewater and Hillary Clinton (5 percent), and President Bill Clinton's State of the Union address (4 percent).
People had mixed views about the job the news media have done so far in covering the 1996 presidential campaign. Forty-two percent rated the coverage as excellent or good, while 48 percent believed it has been only fair or poor. By contrast, a 1993 Brown University national survey showed 55 percent believed news coverage of government and public affairs was excellent or good and 39 percent felt it was only fair or poor.
Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole's ads have generated the greatest visibility in the presidential campaign. Fifty-one percent said they had seen his ads, compared to 40 percent who had seen Forbes' ads, 24 percent who had seen Pat Buchanan's ads, 20 percent who had seen Phil Gramm's ads, and 10 percent who had seen Lamar Alexander's ads. But when asked which television ad run by a presidential candidate this year had made the biggest impression on them, people were most likely to cite Forbes ads (77 mentions), followed by Dole ads (63 mentions), DNC ads for Clinton (40 mentions), Gramm ads (18 mentions), Alexander ads (9 mentions), and Buchanan ads (8 mentions).
The top individual ads mentioned were Forbes flat tax ad (18 mentions), DNC ads for Clinton against Republican cuts in Congress (10 mentions), Forbes ad on Dole raising taxes (6 mentions), Dole ad on Forbes' untested leadership (2 mentions), Alexander on working for the people (2 mentions), Dole on balancing the budget (1 mention), Dole biography ad on war injuries (1 mention), and Buchanan anti-NAFTA ad (1 mention).
This survey was a nationwide probability telephone poll of 927 adults aged 18 years or older in the continental United States. Interviews were conducted Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, 1996, at the John Hazen White Sr. Public Opinion Laboratory of Brown University. The random sample of telephone exchanges was chosen by a computer and designed to insure that each area of the country was represented in proportion to its actual population. For each household chosen, the telephone number was formed by random numbers, which allowed researchers to reach both listed and unlisted numbers. Within each household, the person interviewed was chosen through a random procedure designed to produce a representative sample. Up to four attempts were made to complete an interview. The results were weighted by region, age, sex, education and race to reflect U.S. Census figures for the adult population. In 95 of 100 cases, the results will come within plus or minus 3 percentage points of the adult population. In addition to sampling error, the practical difficulties of conducting surveys can introduce other sources of error into opinion polls.
How many hours in the last week did you spend on the following activities?a) visiting with or talking to friends and relatives? 6% 0 hours, 39% 1-5 hours, 24% 6-10 hours, 10% 11-15 hours, 6% 16-20 hours, 2% 21-25 hours, 8% more than 25 hours, 5% don't know or no answer
Have you ever served on the PTA, a school committee, a neighborhood association, or some other community organization? 39% yes, 60% no, 1% don't know or no answer
How many clubs or civic organizations do you belong to? 62% none, 18% 1-2, 8% 3-4, 2% 5-6, 1% 7-9, 0% 10 or more, 9% don't know or no answer
How much do you think political parties in the United States care about what people want? 8% a lot, 37% somewhat, 51% not very much, 4% don't know or no answer
How necessary are political parties to make our political system work? 46% very necessary, 34% somewhat necessary, 14% not very necessary, 6% don't know or no answer
How would you rate the decision-making process in our national government? 2% excellent, 21% good, 42% only fair, 32% poor, 3% don't know or no answer
How would you rate the decision-making process in our state government? 3% excellent, 32% good, 42% only fair, 17% poor, 6% don't know or no answer
How satisfied are you with the effectiveness of American democracy? 18% very satisfied, 49% somewhat satisfied, 30% not very satisfied, 3% don't know or no answer
Do you expect the effectiveness of American democracy in the future to: 29% get better, 34% stay about the same, 33% get worse, 4% don't know or no answer
Do you think the effectiveness of American democracy would be enhanced by the creation of a third political party? 40% yes, 45% no, 15% don't know or no answer
Do you feel that your member of Congress represents your viewpoint? 40% yes, 45% no, 15% don't know or no answer
How much of the time do you trust public officials to do what is right? 14% most of the time, 48% some of the time, 36% not very much of the time, 2% don't know or no answer
Do you believe public officials usually advocate what they think is right or what they think is popular? 14% what is right, 79% what is popular, 7% don't know or no answer
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: the American political system is like poison ivy, and the only solution is to pull it up from its roots. 44% agree, 49% disagree, 7% don't know or no answer
After the 1996 election, does it matter to you which party controls a majority of seats in the U.S. Congress? 53% yes, 42% no, 5% don't know or no answer
Does it matter to you who wins the 1996 presidential campaign? 71% yes, 26% no, 3% don't know or no answer
Republicans promised a policy revolution when they took control of Congress last November. So far, do you believe that they have brought about a fundamental change in public policy? 32% yes, 60% no, 8% don't know or no answer
Does government do too much or not enough to solve the problems of most Americans? 23% too much, 69% not enough, 8% don't know or no answerHow closely have you followed the 1996 presidential campaign so far? 20% very closely, 45% somewhat closely, 34% not closely at all, 1% don't know or no answer
What do you think is the most important event that has occurred so far in this presidential campaign? (open-ended responses coded into the following categories) 9% Steve Forbes and flat tax, 8% budget and government shutdown, 5% Whitewater and Hillary Clinton, 4% Clinton's State of the Union address, 3% sending troops to Bosnia, 2% Colin Powell not running, 1% Dole slump in polls, 1% Gingrich and Republican takeover of Congress (all other responses below 1%)
Are the presidential candidates addressing the issues of concern to you? 54% yes, 33% no, 13% don't know or no answer
Is your opinion of Robert Dole favorable, not favorable, undecided, or haven't you heard enough yet to have an opinion? 17% favorable, 29% not favorable, 21% undecided, 33% haven't heard enough, 0% no answer
Is your opinion of Steve Forbes favorable, not favorable, undecided, or haven't you heard enough yet to have an opinion? 13% favorable, 15% not favorable, 21% undecided, 50% haven't heard enough, 1% no answer
How would you rate the job the news media have done so far in covering the 1996 presidential campaign? 5% excellent, 37% good, 31% only fair, 17% poor, 10% don't know or no answer
Do you think the news media have gone too far this year in investigating the personal lives of presidential candidates? 50% yes, 39% no, 11% don't know or no answer
In the last week, have you seen political commercials for any of the following candidates?a) Lamar Alexander: 10% yes, 89% no, 1% don't know or no answer
Which television ad run by a presidential candidate this year has made the biggest impression on you? (open-ended responses coded by candidate named and individual ad) Forbes ads (77 mentions), Dole ads (63 mentions), DNC ads for Clinton (40 mentions), Gramm ads (18 mentions), Alexander ads (9 mentions), Buchanan ads (8 mentions) (No other candidates named)
Top individual ads mentioned were Forbes flat tax ad (18 mentions), DNC ads for Clinton against Republican cuts in Congress (10 mentions), Forbes ad on Dole raising taxes (6 mentions), Dole on Forbes untested leadership (2 mentions), Alexander on working for the people (2 mentions), Dole on balancing the budget (1 mentions), Dole biography ad on war injuries (1 mention), Buchanan anti-NAFTA ad (1 mention) (no other individual ad mentioned)
How many times have you or your spouse moved in the last five years? 57% none, 21% once, 11% twice, 5% three times, 2% four times, 1% five times, 1% six times, 2% don't know or no answer
How many times have your or your spouse changed employers in the last five years? 60% none, 18% once, 11% twice, 5% three times, 2% four times, 1% five times, 1% six or seven times, 2% don't know or no answer
Have you or any member of your family lost their job in the last year? 14% yes, 79% no, 7% don't know or no answer