Poll Analysis: Americans Support Bush’s Presidency but Want Legislative Compromise

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Predictions of gridlock for the next four years and a diminished presidency for Bush.

Times Poll Assoc. Director
     Even though there is a sizeable plurality who feel a recount in Florida would find Gore the winner there, a majority of Americans are willing to support George W. Bush as the new president, according to the most recent Times Poll. Only a slim majority, however, said that Bush was the legitimate winner of the election.
     Americans were transfixed by the news coverage of the events of the 2000 presidential election, and there is strong agreement that it was better for the country to go through the sometimes painful process than it would have been to ignore the Gore campaign‚s concerns.
     A plurality of respondents predicted that the close election and a split Congress foreshadow government gridlock for the next four years, and survey findings strongly reinforced Bush‚s lack of a mandate for his political agenda. Survey respondents said Bush should compromise with Democrats on issues familiar from the campaign such as Social Security, taxes, and education rather than trying to push ahead with his own versions of reform.

A Presidency Diminished by Controversy
     Just under three in five predicted a difficult presidency for George W. Bush, saying the controversy will make it harder for him to reach his goals. While half said his ability to unite the country behind him to be an effective president would not be damaged, nearly two in five think it will be. In addition, almost a third say the controversial election will diminish the influence of the U.S. president among the world‚s leaders.
     With no presidential mandate and a closely divided Congress, respondents gave a slight edge to a prediction of four years of gridlock -- a plurality (46%) said they think across-the-aisle cooperation to accomplish legislation isn‚t likely, slightly more than the 43% who were more optimistic. However, the close overall numbers mask the usual deep partisan divide.
         66% of Republicans, 32% of independents and 35% of Democrats predict cooperation
         28% of Republicans, 55% of independents and 56% of Democrats predict gridlock
     Half of respondents (including 59% of Democrats and 46% of Republicans) said they feel the close election and split in Congress indicate the country is deeply divided, as opposed to moving toward a political center.
     Bush will not have an easy road ahead if he hopes to push through the programs he outlined in his campaign speeches, the survey showed. Strong majorities said Bush should compromise on tax cuts (65%), Social Security (69%), and education (57%) rather than pushing ahead with his own agenda. Times Poll surveys conducted before the election found majority support for Gore‚s proposals on those issues and the current survey indicates that Bush has no popular mandate to help him pass his agenda at this time.
     American‚s desire for compromise extended to the Senate, as well. Nearly three in five said the Senate should split leadership roles between the parties since there was no clear majority.
     However, despite the party divisions, a solid three quarters said they support Bush as the next president, including 64% of Democrats, 74% of independents, and a whopping (if unsurprising) 98% of Republicans. This is despite the finding that only 52% feel he won the office legitimately.
         91% of Republicans, 52% of independents and only 23% of Democrats said Bush‚s win was legitimate
         4% of Republicans, 37% of independents and 71% of Democrats say it wasn‚t.
     The presidency isn‚t the only branch of government whose credibility took a hit during the weeks since the election. While half of Americans continue to have a favorable impression of the highest court, and 47% approve of its handling of the election situation, a sizeable number aren‚t happy about the ruling -- forty-four percent disapprove of the court‚s handling of the recounts, including over two-thirds of Democrats, 42% of independents and 17% of Republicans.
     Not only that, but two in five Americans believe the U.S. Supreme Court‚s Bush-favorable ruling showed partisan bias. Nearly half think that Scalia and Thomas should have recused themselves to avoid the appearance of impropriety stemming from family members who are involved with president-elect Bush‚s campaign or transition team.
     In addition, a slim majority said they agree with the four justices who would have let the vote counts continue. A 44% plurality believe Gore would have come out the winner if the recounts had continued.
     But the threat to the presidency isn‚t over, according to respondents. If independent recounts by media or other organizations who use the Freedom of Information act to gain access to the Florida ballots found Gore to be the winner in Florida, Bush‚s presidency would be further damaged, according to nearly three in five.

The Election in Florida
     While there was agreement that the country has just come through a problematic time (only 5% said it was not a problem at all), only 14% characterized the election problems as a „constitutional crisis‰, while half said it was a major problem for the country and 28% said they consider the controversy to be a minor problem. Despite the uncertainty, nearly seven in 10 said they thought it was better for the country to take every possible measure to reach a complete count of ballots even if it meant a delay in finding out who won, compared to 26% who thought it would be better for the country for the president to be known right away without any challenges to the vote.
     Bush received slightly higher marks among the public than did Gore in his handling of the election situation in Florida. Fifty-five percent said they approved of Bush‚s handling of the situation vs. 39% who disapproved, while Gore‚s approval rating in Florida was only 49% to 46% who disapprove. Bush also had a slight edge over Gore in impressions of the two candidates, the survey showed. Majorities of respondents overall expressed favorable impressions of Gore (53%) and Bush (57%.) Impressions measured by a Times Poll survey taken a little over a month before election day show that Gore has suffered a more precipitous drop in his favorability margin (the difference between his favorable and unfavorable numbers) among registered voters˜from 20 percentage points to 12˜than did Bush, whose margin decreased only five points after the events of the election.
     While majorities of the public expressed a positive view of both men, there is a sharp partisan divide.
         86% of Democrats have a favorable impression of Al Gore and 80% approve of his handling of the Florida vote count situation, compared to 19% of Republicans who view him favorably and 81% who disapprove of his handling of the vote counts.
          28% of Democrats have a favorable impression of Bush and 28% said he handled things well in Florida. Nearly nine in 10 of his own party say he handled things well and gave him a 96% favorability rating as well.
     Al Gore‚s narrow win of the popular vote in the nation wasn‚t enough to win him the presidency, and the survey indicates that an election held today would give him a similar very slender edge over Bush. However, in another indication of just how close the division of opinion over the two men continues to be, respondents split 44% to 42% in Bush‚s favor when asked if the election events in Florida had shown Bush or Gore to be the best man for the job of president. Forty-seven percent of respondents (including half of white respondents) said they thought that the problems that arose in the attempt to reach an accurate vote count in Florida were common problems that would arise in any election, but two in five (including 49% of non-whites) said they felt it showed an attempt to interfere with the outcome of the election.
     Suspicion about vote tampering didn‚t reach close to home, however. Seven in 10 expressed confidence that their vote was counted, including 64% of Democrats, 70% of independents and 88% of Republicans.
     The survey found very vigorous support for the imposition of a federal vote-counting standard. Eighty-one percent said they would strongly support such a measure, and another 13% said they‚d support it with some reservations.
     A majority of respondents overall expressed disapproval of the way the Florida Supreme Court handled the situation in Florida, including a third who said they strongly disapproved. While nearly half said they thought the court actions were nonpartisan, a sizeable two in five saw partisan bias in the rulings.

The Aftermath
     Seven out of 10 respondents said they watched or listened to Gore‚s concession speech or heard about it later, and nearly four in five of those who had heard about it said they felt that his words were a step toward bringing the nation together again. A much smaller 57% watched or listened to Bush‚s speech, given by the president-elect forty-five minutes after Gore‚s concession. Among those who watched or heard about it, seven in 10 said they thought Bush‚s speech was enough to begin the process of reconciliation.
     The long election process was an education if nothing else. Only 19% of respondents said they now don‚t understand how the somewhat complex American electoral college system works and over three quarters said they have at least some understanding of it. The survey found strong popular support for abolishing the electoral college and amending the constitution to rely on only a popular vote for electing the president. Three in five would prefer to elect the president through a popular vote while three in 10 said they‚d leave the system as it is.
     Almost no one heard a network prediction of the election before they went to vote themselves. Nine out of ten registered voters said they didn‚t hear such a call and of those who did hear it, none said they didn‚t vote as a result. Nonetheless, the survey shows a great deal of popular support for stopping the network practice of calling an election when the majority of the polls have closed on election day. Over three in four (77%) said they feel the networks election night predictions are interfering with the voting process and should be stopped. Only 20% said they felt the practice was merely the reporting of breaking news and should be continued.
     The survey showed that public confidence in the ability of the American constitutional system to handle problems of this type took a direct hit. While a quarter said they have confidence in the resilience of the system, a sizeable plurality of 47% said their confidence had decreased. A quarter indicated that the events didn‚t have an effect on their confidence in the system. Still, there is good news for the future. Three in 10 said they are more likely to vote next time, and only 6% said they are less likely to vote because of the election controversies this time.

The Economy
     Despite the occasional gloomy economic forecast and a volatile stock market, the survey found that respondents are showing only some small signs of weakening confidence in the nation‚s economy. Registered voters, who have been more optimistic than not the country is headed in the right direction in Times Poll surveys conducted over the last few years, were somewhat divided˜49% to 41% in this survey, a drop to half the percentage point margin found by a Times Poll survey in September 2000. More telling, nearly two thirds of Americans believe the country is heading for a recession in the next 12 months.

How the Poll Was Conducted
     The Times Poll contacted 865 adults nationwide by telephone Dec. 14ˆ16, 2000. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and non-listed numbers could be contacted. The entire sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and region. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points. For certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.