Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1996-1997 index

Distributed November 19, 1996
Contact: Mark Nickel

A post-election national opinion poll

Voters favor disclosure, spending limits for interest-group campaign ads;
commentators found useful, but news media get mixed reviews

Issue advocacy advertising was more prominent in the 1996 national elections than ever before. By a wide margin, Americans believe interest groups sponsoring these ads should be subject to spending limits and funding disclosure. News media received mixed reviews, but commentators were found to be valuable sources of information.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- An overwhelming majority of Americans believe interest groups running television ads to educate the public about political issues should disclose who is paying for the ads and be subject to the same campaign finance rules as candidates, according to a recent national survey. Other results show that 60 percent of respondents name campaign commentators as the most helpful source of information to voters. Forty-nine percent believe the news media did an excellent or good job of covering the 1996 elections.

The survey was conducted Oct. 28 to Nov. 3, 1996, at Brown University by Darrell M. West, professor of political science and director of the John Hazen White Sr. Public Opinion Laboratory. It was based on a national sample of 724 adults in the United States. Overall, it had a margin of error of about plus or minus five percentage points. The survey was funded in part by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

The 1996 elections saw the rise of a new genre of advertising - issue advocacy spots run by interest groups designed to educate the public about political issues. Under current rules, these groups are not required to register as political action committees or disclose spending or contributors. However, citizens do not approve of this loophole in the campaign finance system. By a 76 to 14 percent margin, citizens believe that interest groups which run political ads on television designed to educate the public about the issues should disclose who is paying for the ads. Seventy-four percent feel that interest groups running issue advocacy ads should be subject to the same campaign finance rules as candidates who run for office, while 12 percent do not.

Citizens had difficulty distinguishing candidate party and interest group ads because they looked and sounded like campaign ads. Focus groups conducted Oct. 2 and 17, 1996, on issue ads found that only 46 percent of respondents correctly identified the sponsor of presidential ads and 50 percent correctly identified the sponsor of U.S. Senate ads. On average in these ads, the line identifying the ad sponsor was on the screen for five seconds, which is not enough for many viewers correctly to identify the sponsor of the ad.

The Brown survey found that candidate ads in the 1996 elections were the most watched but seen as least helpful source of political information. Eighty percent said they had seen ads for Clinton and Dole in 1996, compared to 78 percent who watched the national television news, 64 percent who saw campaign commentators, 56 percent who saw national party ads, 55 percent who saw presidential Ad Watches, 52 percent who saw ads sponsored by interest groups, 50 percent who saw free television time speeches provided by the networks, and 47 percent who saw congressional Ad Watches.

But only one-third (35 percent) thought candidate ads were helpful to voters. Campaign commentators were seen as most helpful with 60 percent of those who saw them saying they were helpful. Fifty-nine percent said congressional Ad Watches were helpful and 58 percent thought presidential Ad Watches were helpful. Fifty-five percent felt that free television time was helpful, 48 percent believed interest group ads were helpful, and 45 percent thought national party ads were helpful.

When asked to name the specific television presidential campaign ad that made the biggest impression on them this fall, voters most frequently cited (21 mentions) Dole's MTV ad replaying footage of Clinton saying he would inhale if he had it to do over again, followed by Perot's "It's Your Country" spot (16 mentions) and Clinton's ads on Medicare cuts (10 mentions).

The national sample was asked to rate the performance of the news media in the 1996 elections. Thirteen percent said the news media had done an excellent job, 36 percent believed it had done a good job, 34 percent felt the job was only fair, 14 percent felt it was poor, and 3 percent were unsure. These numbers were slightly down from comparable figures in 1992. In that year, 54 percent rated the media as having done an excellent or good job, while 44 percent felt the media had done only fair or poor.

For more information, contact Darrell M. West at 401/863-1163.