Poll Analysis: Majorities Feel Nation's Economy Is Strong But Country Is On The Wrong Track

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     The first president of the new millennium will be governing a nation which feels the country is in good financial condition but seriously off on the wrong track otherwise, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll conducted November 13th through the 18th. On one hand, a large majority of adult Americans describe the nation's economy as strong and their own finances as secure, but on the other hand they are split over whether the country is generally on the right track or has gone off in the wrong direction.
     About the happy dilemma of how to spend a surplus created by a surging stock market, most adults say they favor the president's plan to use a budget surplus to shore up Medicare and Social Security as well as boosting spending on education and to fund a small tax cut. Only a few favor the GOP model which returns most of the deficit funds to the taxpayer via revenue cuts. Even a majority of conservative Republicans -- no fans of Clinton's -- favor the president's plan.
     There is no indication that Americans are holding a grudge against GOP congressional leaders for their unpopular impeachment of the president early this year. They remain unimpressed by Congress' lackluster job performance but are more likely to say both parties are at fault for government gridlock than to blame either a GOP dislike of Clinton or the ineffectiveness of a lame duck president. A plurality think the president can take credit for leaving the country in better shape than he found it, and his job approval and personal ratings remain high. In what may be a testament to how confused the nation found itself when confronted with the dilemma of what to do about a president caught up in scandal, the survey found that almost two thirds said they like Clinton's policies and two thirds said they dislike him as a person. One third simultaneously dislike Clinton and like his policies.

     State of the Nation
     Despite the energetic economy, the survey measured the lowest indication of confidence in the country's direction found in a Times poll since September, 1997. Just over four in ten (42%) adults said the country is headed in the right direction while 47% said it is seriously off on the wrong track. Among registered voters, the figures tighten to a virtual tie -- 44% think the country is moving in the right direction while 46% disagree.
     Opinion on the state of the nation is highly ideological as well as being divisive by gender. If you are one of Clinton's core supporters -- Democrat or liberal and especially liberal Democrat -- you are inclined to think the nation is on the right track and Clinton deserves credit. If you are Republican or conservative or both, you are unlikely to agree with either of those assessments. Nearly six in ten (58%) liberal Democrats said the country is on the right track, compared to 43% of centrist Democrats , 42% of centrist Republicans and 35% of conservative Republicans. Men (49%) are more likely to say they think the country is moving along just fine than are women (36%). Even controlling for party doesn't make that gender gap go away completely, since among Democrats, a 55% majority of men say the country is going the right way while 45% of women agree. Among Republicans, similar findings on a lower scale -- 45% of men and only 31% of women say the country is on the right track. A majority of black respondents say the country is on the wrong track -- 56% expressed that view compared to 39% who say the country is headed correctly.
     Confidence in the general course of the country climbed to a high of 56% fourteen months ago from a previous low of 17% measured in October of 1992 during the recession. Over the last year, the figure has steadily declined to where it is now.

     Finances and the Budget Surplus
     There was general agreement that the nation, which is facing the dilemma of how to spend a budget surplus for the first time in decades, is doing well economically. Overall 83% of adults and 86% of voters said the economy is doing well. Three in ten (31%) said it is doing very well, while a slim majority (52%) were slightly less enthusiastic but still positive. The only down-notes in the otherwise generally positive outlook was found among women and independent voters. Almost two out of ten (19% and 18% respectively) of each of those groups said that the economy is doing fairly or very badly. This may reflect the finding that women and independent voters have a higher tendency to represent their own personal finances as "shaky".
     Most confident in the economy were Democrat men, 95% of whom said it is doing well, including 53% of whom who said it is doing very well. Democrat women were also positive (82% said it is doing well) although less enthusiastic than their male counterparts. Fifty-two percent hedged, saying the economy is doing "fairly well" while 30% said very well. Most gloomy were women who vote independent, just over two in ten said the economy is not doing well.
     When it comes to their own finances, most respondents indicated they are in pretty good shape. Seven in ten adults said their financial situation is very (16%) or fairly (54%) secure while two in ten (19%) characterized it as somewhat shaky and another one in ten (9%) said they are on very shaky ground. As noted above, women (12% very and 21% somewhat shaky) were quite a bit more likely than men (7% very, 17% somewhat shaky) to say their finances are less than secure. Black Americans are also on shakier financial ground than their white counterparts -- four in ten say they can't consider their financial situation as secure.
     Respondent's overall confidence in their own financial situation remains fairly stable no matter what is going on in the economy outside. Even during the recession years of the early 1990s, the proportion who said they felt financially secure dropped below 60% only once -- in January, 1993 when it reached 57%.
     The booming economy has created a budget surplus and of course there is a controversy over what to do with it. A large majority (80%) of poll respondents said they favored the president's plan to use any overage for strengthening Social Security and Medicare and increasing education spending, with a small tax cut on the side. The GOP plan to returning the money to the voter via tax cuts was favored by 14% overall. There is some disagreement over this, of course. Conservative GOP voters are seven times as likely to favor using surplus money to fund tax cuts (37%) as are voters who say they are liberal Democrats (5%) and more than twice as likely as independents (14%). Republicans overall favored President Clinton's approach by 65% over 28% who like their own party's tax-cut plan best.

     President Clinton's Ratings and Approval
     Americans may have a less than rosy view of the nation's general direction, but they don't hold Bill Clinton's presidential reign responsible. Just under six in ten (58%) Americans and a similar proportion of registered voters (57%) say they approve of the way Bill Clinton is handling his job as president. Even one third of Republicans (34%) and nearly four in ten (37%) self-described conservatives say they approve of the president's performance in office. Democrats, self-described liberals, women and blacks are among the most approving -- giving him an 85%, 78%, 61% and 88% approval rating respectively. More than half of independents (53%) and those who say they are "middle of the road" ideologically (65%) also approve of the job the president has been doing.
     Clinton's approval rating hasn't changed much since the last time the Times Poll measured it in March of this year (at the time of the NATO strikes on Kosovo). His approval rating is again holding steady at just about where it was for nearly two years between September 1996 and September 1998. At that time the news of an alleged Presidential affair with a young intern broke and Clinton's job approval skyrocketed to an overall high of 68% where the Times Poll measured it hovering in the mid to high sixties until early this year.
     Job approval for the president and overall impression of the man are two different things. A slender majority of adults (54%) said they have a favorable impression of Bill Clinton. This, much more than job approval, is a question that polarizes the political partisans. Nearly four in ten Democrats (38%) have a very favorable opinion of Clinton vs. 8% of Republicans. Almost half of Republicans (48%) have a very unfavorable opinion of him vs. 8% of Democrats who stated a similarly strong distaste. There is very little division by gender, the division is mainly along political lines. Black Americans, however, are much less equivocal in their approbation of the president -- 91% rated him favorably. The majority (54%) said their impression is very favorable with another 36% somewhat favorable.
     Almost half of respondents think Clinton should get credit for leaving the country in better shape than it was when he took office. Few (14%) say he should be assigned blame for leaving it in worse condition. One third said Clinton's presidency had little impact on the shape the country is in.
     The president's core supporters have a higher opinion of his impact, of course. Nearly eight in ten liberal Democrats (79%) say the country is better off versus only 2% who say it is worse and 15% who say the president's term of office has made no difference. Centrist Democrats agree in slightly smaller proportion -- 68% said better, 7% said worse and 23% said no difference.
     Conservative Republicans are much more reluctant to give credit to the president of another party and ideology, although more say that he hasn't made a difference one way or another (47%) than come right out to say he has made the country worse off (33%). One in seven admit they feel the country is better off after Clinton's two terms in office.
     As Clinton's term in office has lengthened, he has convinced more people that he will leave office with the country better off than when he took office. The Times Poll measured a steady rise in that figure from 25% in December, 1993 to a high of 59% in January 1999 before dropping to the figure found in this survey. As the proportion of those who say he deserves credit rises, the proportion of people who say he has left the country in worse shape has stayed somewhat stable (well under 20%) while the proportion of people who said his term in office has made no impact has steadily dropped from 63% to the 27% measured last January and then up to the one third in this survey.
     Clinton's policies are liked, but he himself is not, according to a survey question that asked voters if the respondent liked Clinton's policies but not the man or visa versa or both or neither. About three in ten voters said they like Clinton and his policies, a third said they like his policies but not him and three in ten said they dislike both. Seven percent like him but not his policies. When you look at the combinations, 62% said they dislike Clinton and 62% said they like his policies. Clear enough. When the question was asked in January of this year, 65% of registered voters said they liked his policies and 39% said they liked him personally. It is interesting to contrast those figures with then-president Bush in April 1989: 75% of all adults said they liked Bush but only 51% said they liked his policies. Nearly half liked both. Eight in ten (79%) adults liked Reagan in February of 1987 but only 48% liked his policies.

     Clinton's Legacy in the Democratic Primaries
     By one sort of measure, Clinton's policies are seen to be popular with the electorate -- 62% of voters say they like his policies, whether or not they like the man. On the other hand, when asked if the next president should continue Bill Clinton's policies or point the country in a new direction, only 38% opted for more of the same.
     Two-term Vice President Al Gore is not overwhelmingly seen as the next standard bearer even among those who would like to see Clinton's policies continued.
     Two thirds of Clinton supporters (those who like him and like his policies) say they would pick Gore over Bradley in their Democratic primary, along with 62% of those who like Clinton regardless of his policies, and 57% of those who like the president's policies regardless of how they feel about him. Bradley grabs nearly four in ten votes from those who would like to see the next president continue Clinton's policies while Gore garners a fairly unimpressive 52%.

     Clinton's Legacy in 2000
     At this point, a year before the national election for president, there are indications that Vice President Al Gore's viability as a candidate for his party is in question. This is not to say that things may not change dramatically in the coming months, but as measured right now, even die-hard Clinton supporters -- those who like the man and his policies -- are not as solidly behind him as he might hope.
     In a hypothetical two-way race between Gore as the Democratic candidate and George W. Bush as the Republican, Gore garners a fairly soft 76% of the vote among the three in ten voters who say they like President Clinton and they like his policies. Seventeen percent of this group -- those who stand firmly behind the controversial Democratic president -- would vote for Bush, and 7% say they don't know. This is good but not great, and it is as good as it gets for Gore.
     Among the one third nationally who dislike Clinton but like his policies, 55% say they'd vote for Bush and only four in ten (41%) would vote for Gore. The three in ten nationally who dislike Clinton and his policies are firmly behind Bush at this point as you would expect -- a solid 90% would vote for the Republican if an election between the two candidates were being held today.
     Looked at another way, almost four in ten voters who like Clinton's policies (whether or not they like the man) say they'd vote for Bush over Gore, the man who promises the most obvious continuity of presidential policies. Gore does garner a majority of those votes (57%) but not as many as one might suppose he would get. Among the 36% nationwide who like Clinton personally, 67% say they'd vote for Gore and 26% for Bush. His support just isn't there compared to the sort of partisan backing Bush already enjoys as all-but-nominated standard bearer for his party.
     If you put Bradley into the 2000 horserace instead of Gore as the Democratic candidate, he does almost as well as Gore. Looked at that way, Clinton's legacy seems to have little effect on the outcome when what seems to be really going on is a lack of interest in voting for the Democrat.
     Similarly, two thirds of those who say they would like to see the next president continue with Clinton's policies say they would vote for Gore over Bush. Three in ten would cast their votes for Bush.

     Congressional Ratings
     Congress does not enjoy anything like Clinton's level of overall job approval. Slightly more (48%) adults disapprove than approve (42%) of the job Congress is doing overall and that margin increases to 53% disapproval vs. 39% approval among registered voters. Even those who identify with the majority party can't muster much enthusiasm -- 51% of Republicans expressed some level of approval while 44% said they disapproved.
     The Times Poll has measured Congressional job approval hovering well below 50% since 1997 with the exception of January, 1998 when it reached 53% before dipping below half again. The Times Poll measured Congressional job approval at a low of 35% in August 1996 after two years of the GOP majority's aggressive pursuit of an unpopular conservative agenda for the nation.
     While six in ten adults (61%) said they think Congress has accomplished at least something over the past three years, one third (34%) disagree. The figures are similar among registered voters (59% vs. 38%). Even three in ten GOP voters (29%) said Congress has accomplished little or nothing. That figure rose to 36% among Democrats and 37% among independents.
     A majority (58%) of those who think Congress has accomplished very little place the blame equally on President Clinton and the Congress, agreeing that it is their inability to work together that has caused gridlock in Washington DC, but a fairly hefty minority of 27% (made up mostly of Democrats and independents) place the blame squarely on the dislike GOP Congressional members have for Clinton and their consequent reluctance to pass any legislation he might propose.
     When asked which party they would like to see win a hypothetical Congressional race, voters picked Democrats (47%) by six points over Republicans (41%). This is very similar to the result found when last measured by the Times Poll in September 1997 (47% to 39%). This is a highly partisan measure (91% of Democrats said "Democrat", 92% of Republicans said "Republican") that depends on the way independents vote to shake out the tie. In this case, 13% of independents weren't sure, and slightly more (43%) said they'd like to see Republicans win a Congressional race than said Democrats (37%).

     Party Politics
     When a Democrat or Republican was asked which party can do a better job of handling the nation's problems, more than three times out of four they named their own party. Independents -- those who are not affiliated with any party or who decline to state which party they will vote for -- were slightly more inclined to say that the Democrats (32%) can handle things better than the Republicans (26%). Nearly one in four (24%) volunteered that neither party is the best. The independents, therefore, are where the Democrats (38%) are finding their seven point edge over Republicans (31%) overall. This is slightly closer than the eleven point lead Democrats (40%) had over Republicans (29%) when this was last measured by the Times Poll in October, 1996.
     A majority of respondents (52%) said they think it is a good idea when Congress and the White House are in the hands of opposing parties, to provide a check on one another. A sizeable minority of 38% disagrees with that assessment, however. Democrats are split on this issue 47% for checks and balances, 47% voting for the possibilities inherent in having similar ideologies leading both branches of government. There is more agreement among independents (55% for split government, 35% for one party) and Republicans (50% split, 34% unity).
     In this document, the political party identifications "Democrat", "Republican" and "independent" indicate which party the respondent identifies with, regardless of how they are registered or how they may have voted in the past. This type of party identification takes into account the variability of voter registration laws across the various states.

     How the Poll Was Conducted
     The Times Poll contacted 1,800 adults nationally, including 1,430 registered voters by telephone November 13 through 18. Among the registered voters, 604 said they planned to vote in the Republican primary or caucus and 650 planned to vote in the Democratic primary or caucus. 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 sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and region. The margin of sampling error for the entire sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points, and for Democratic and Republican subsamples it is 4 points. For certain other 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.