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Heartland Press Release

Gore Has Deeper Problems Among Iowans than His Stiffness

The University of Iowa Social Science Institute

Arthur H. Miller

Regan Checchio

Tor Wynn


Three months before the Iowa caucuses Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush hold a commanding lead over their respective party rivals according to the latest Heartland Poll conducted by the University of Iowa Social Science Institute. The Vice President enjoys the support of a larger percentage of Democrats (61%) than Governor Bush receives from Republicans (52%). Yet, when asked about who they would support in the 2000 general election, a cross section of registered Iowa voters favor Bush over Gore by 14 percentage points in a two party race and 11 percentage points in a three party race. This substantial lead for Bush is a dramatic turnaround for a state that supported the Clinton/Gore ticket in both 1992 and 1996 (they received 43.3% and 50.3% of the general election vote in each year respectively as compared with 37.3% and 39.9% for Bush and Dole in each respective year).

Despite the growing media coverage of the Bradley campaign, former Senator Bill Bradley remains unknown to 20% of Iowa Democrats. His campaign has yet to stir much enthusiasm thus only 21% of Democrats likely to attend the caucuses indicated that they will support him at their local caucus (see Figure 1).

Steve Forbes, after running in 1996 and spending millions on the August 1999 straw poll in Iowa, still runs well behind George Bush (see Figure 2). Indeed the 13% of support found in the recent Heartland Poll is lower than the support that Forbes had in the Heartland Poll at roughly the same time in the 1996 campaign when he ran second to Bob Dole.

While Democrats as a whole say they would remain staunchly loyal to Al Gore in a general election contest with George Bush (85% say they would vote for Gore), Bush would handily win that election among Iowans if the vote were held today (see Figure 3). Bush would win that contest because 93% of Republicans and 53% of Independents would support him. Bush would also win a three-way contest that included Buchanan as the third party standard bearer (see Figure 4). Having Buchanan in the race does, however, narrow the difference in support for Gore versus Bush. One of the most surprising findings in the preferred vote choice for the 2000 general election is the virtual absence of a gender gap. Ever since the 1980 election Democrats have enjoyed a gender gap with women voting significantly more Democratic than men. While Iowa women do prefer Gore slightly more than Iowa men, the difference is only 3% in a two-person race between Gore and Bush and 4.7% in a three-way race that includes Buchanan. But in both situations, a larger percentage of women prefer Bush to Gore (47% prefer Bush in a two person race, 41% in a three-way race as compared with 37% and 36% for Gore in each respective race).

Why does Bush lead Gore so decisively? Part of the explanation arises out of weaknesses associated with the Vice President. In large part, it is these same weaknesses that make him vulnerable to a challenge from Bill Bradley; a topic we explore next. But in part the Bush lead also reflects some doubts about the future and a desire for change regardless of how positive Americans are about Bill Clinton’s performance as president. It is this yearning for change that brings many citizens to project certain desired characteristics onto George Bush, while many others are expressing a preference for a third party candidate. After discussing the Gore versus Bradley contest, we turn to a comparison of Gore and Bush and then analyze the potential third party threat.

Gore vs. Bradley

Although Gore appears to be having trouble when pitted against Bush in a direct contest, he maintains a strong lead against Bill Bradley among Iowa’s Democrats. (See Table 1) Approximately 60% of Iowa Democrats say they would like Gore to be the Democratic nominee in the 2000 election. Although about 18% of Democrats still remain undecided, less than 20% would like to see Bradley capture the nomination. For all of Gore's apparent weaknesses, one wonders why Bradley is not a stronger candidate in Iowa.

It appears that Bradley cannot capitalize on Gore’s weaknesses as a candidate in his attempt to wrest the nomination away from the vice-president. Although feelings about Bradley are perceived as warmer than Gore among the entire sample (see Table 2), Democrats feel slightly warmer towards Gore (63) than Bradley (58).

Among Democrats, Bradley is also perceived as less effective than Gore , especially in the key area of economic effectiveness (See Table 3). When questioned about effectiveness, 34% of Democrats feel that Gore would be much stronger than Bradley in dealing with the economy and 21% feel the Vice President would be better at reforming campaign finance. Conversely, only 14% of Iowa Democrats feel that Bradley would be stronger than Gore in dealing with the economy although he is perceived as slightly more effective than Gore in dealing with an international crisis.

Gore’s strength relative to Bradley among Iowa Democrats does not appear to derive from ideology, though (Table 4). In fact, 31% of Democrats perceive Bradley as being closer to them on a liberal-conservative scale as opposed to 26% who see themselves as closer to Gore . The two candidates are not perceived as very far apart ideologically (See Table 5), but Democrats do perceive Bradley as being slightly more liberal than Gore, with mean ratings of 3.71 and 3.98 respectively (see Table 6).

As a candidate, Bradley is strongest among Democrats who feel that the economy has gotten worse during the past year and those who feel the economy will get worse in the future. He does not seem to benefit from perceptions that crime is increasing, however. (See Table 7)

Bradley’s main problem in Iowa appears to be a lack of recognition. Among respondents, 20% of respondents answered "don't know" when asked to give him a thermometer rating. The recognition level drops even more dramatically when respondents were asked to rate his effectiveness. Although he is perceived as close to Democrats ideologically and effective in the international arena, Bradley needs to become more visible in Iowa if he is to become a legitimate contender with Gore.

Comparing Gore and Bush

Why does Governor Bush hold such a commanding lead on Vice President Al Gore at this point in the campaign? In many respects the lead is surprising. Yet, we should not forget that in 1988, once he became the standard bearer for the Democratic party, Michael Dukakis, then Governor of Massachusetts also held a significant early lead over then Vice President George Bush, Sr.

Bill Clinton currently receives higher approval ratings for how he is handling his job as president than did Ronald Reagan at this point in his second term. Some 57% of Iowans approve of how Clinton is handling his job as president, 71% approve of his handling of the economy and 51% approve of how he is handling foreign affairs (on this latter item 10% say they don’t know and 39% say disapprove). Yet this performance success does not spill over to benefit the Vice President. What does influence evaluations of the Vice President are Bill Clinton’s personal shortcomings. In part this arises because Al Gore is often seen on television answering questions about Clinton’s indiscretions, but rarely is he seen answering questions about the administration’s policy successes. Because he’s been burdened by negative associations with Clinton, even many Democrats (35%) say that while they approve of Clinton’s job performance, they want a drastic change for the future administration (see Table 8). Likewise, some 40% of Independents say that they approve of Clinton’s performance but want a major change in administration. Some of this desire for a dramatic change in administration is driven by fears that the economy will get worse in the future. Perhaps when the economy is as good as it has been in the past few years, it is natural for a significant percentage of people to believe that it can only get worse. Roughly one-third (34%) of Iowans expressed this view (46% said it would remain the same and 20% said it would get better in the next year). These fears are hurting Al Gore. Among the Democrats who believe that the economy will worsen in the coming year 67% want a dramatic change in administrations despite the fact that 82% of them give Bill Clinton high praise for his personal handling of the economy. In short, these economic successes are not spilling over to boost Al Gore’s future potential.

In fact, among Democrats worried about future economic conditions getting worse, Gore is perceived as less effective in handling the economy in the future than is Bush (42% said Bush would be more effective, 23% said there would be no difference and 35% see Gore as more effective). Among Democrats in general, Gore is perceived as more competent to deal with the economy than is Bush (see Table 9). Yet, the impact of concern about the future economy worsening, that is found among Democrats could be a clue as to why Independents also tend to see Bush as somewhat more effective in dealing with the economy. In short, Clinton, not Gore, gets credit for the current economic boom, thus Gore fails to benefit from this outstanding performance while he suffers due to concerns about a future downturn (34% of Independents and 40% of Republicans think the economy will get worse in the next year).

Even more surprising than the lack of perceived effectiveness for Gore in dealing with the economy, is the finding that a majority of Iowans believe that Bush would more effectively deal with an international crisis (see Table 9). Even among Democrats, Gore is not perceived as particularly more effective in dealing with any future international crisis than is Bush. A preponderance of Republicans and Independents, on the other hand, perceive Bush as more effective than Gore when it comes to dealing with international crises, despite the Governor’s lack of international experience. Given recent indications of Bush’s lack of knowledge of foreign leaders and political situations around the world, one might expect these comparisons to change in the future. Shifts in these comparisons, however, will only occur if the public comes to see Al Gore as relatively accomplished in the international arena. In short, Bush is not hurt if the public knows little about Gore’s foreign accomplishments.

Moving on to another visible topic, campaign finance reform, neither Bush nor Gore are perceived by the public as particularly effective in dealing with this issue (see Table 9). Republicans see Bush as more effective than Gore on this issue, but that appears to be primarily a reflection of partisan enthusiasm. Independents perceive little difference between Gore and Bush on this issue. Thus neither candidate gains an advantage from this issue, but the perception that neither of these candidates would do a better job on this issue may be adding to the desire of Independents for a third party, a topic discussed below.

Given that Gore is not perceived as particularly more effective than Bush in dealing with the economy or an international crisis, it would not be surprising to find that Bush is also more likely to be seen as a strong leader and a man of action, characteristics that the public usually associate with a successful president. Indeed as Table 10 demonstrates, most respondents see Bush as a stronger leader relative to Gore; a finding that is true even among Democrats. Although Gore has an edge over Bush among Democrats when it comes to being perceived as a "man of action," Bush is perceived as relatively more action oriented by Independents and Republicans (see Table 10).

All the recent press coverage of Bush’s possible past usage of cocaine and Gore’s popular image as a "family man," might also suggest that Gore would be considered far more moral than Bush. Yet as Table 10 reveals, Gore is seen as predominantly more moral relative to Bush only among Democrats. His own partisans also see Gore as more caring, but overall his lead in this area is rather slim. By comparison, in both 1992 and 1996, most Iowans perceived Clinton as far more caring than either of his two Republican opponents in those respective elections. It was in part this perception of Clinton as caring and compassionate that promoted a gender gap in those two elections.

One of the great policy accomplishments frequently claimed by Bill Clinton has been the steady reduction in crime rates during the past few years. Again, one might expect that such an accomplishment would carry over to benefit Gore’s image as someone who might be tough on crime and criminals. Yet, as Table 10 vividly demonstrates, this is not the case, not even among Democrats (44% of them see no difference between Bush and Gore regarding how tough they would be on crime). Once again, Bush is perceived as relatively stronger on this issue by the total sample of Iowans. Part of the explanation for why Gore may appear so weak when it comes to the crime issue is that most Iowans do not believe that national crime has in fact decreased. Despite the trend in the national crime statistics, most Iowans believe that crime is increasing nationally rather than decreasing (see Table 11). Given these beliefs, it would be difficult for the Vice President to gain an advantage on this issue based on claims about past policy successes.

The Third Party Threat

In the 1999 Heartland, 40% of respondents prefer that the 2000 presidential election offer a third-party candidate as a choice instead of a more limited race between Al Gore as the Democratic candidate and George W. Bush as the Republican candidate. The question we wanted to explore is: who are these people and what factors are pushing them away from the two conventional parties and/or pulling them toward a new party?

While there is no gender gap, third-party preference gaps exist for education and age, so that those without college degrees (45% to 28%) and younger respondents (47% to 33%) are more likely to prefer a third-party (see Table 12). Political attitudes also affect interest in a third party (see Table 13). Independents (51%) and Democrats (36%) are more likely to make this choice, as are those who mistrust government in general and those who believe that public officials do not share their concerns (45% for both). Looking specifically at the Clinton administration, respondents who approve of the job President Clinton is doing are more likely to want a third-party candidate (43%), but so are those who would like to see significant change from the current administration (43%). Those who share both sentiments–approving of Clinton’s personal job performance as president but wanting a change from the present administration–are the respondents most likely to want a third-party choice in the upcoming election (51%).

What about this group causes them to prefer a break from traditional parties? A multivariate analysis reveals that the factor with the biggest impact on third-party preference is feelings about the two main candidates. Dislike of Al Gore and George W. Bush is driving individuals from the Republican and Democratic parties. For Gore, respondents who prefer a third-party choice rate him five points lower on a thermometer scale than those who are satisfied with a traditional election (see Table 14). These thermometer differences are particularly noticeable among Democrats, where those with a third-party preference rate Gore almost 15 points lower than others in the party. In large part this dislike of Gore arises because he is not seen as a "man of action."

Bush suffers a similar fate among Republicans, where his overall 11-point drop in thermometer ratings between those who do or do not prefer a third party choice is due in large part to a 12-point difference within his party, but also the result of a nine point difference among Independents (see Table 14). The drop in ratings for Bush among those preferring a third party choice come primarily from those who see Bush as neither "caring" or "moral".

Part of the lower ratings these candidates receive among those with a third party preference can also be attributed to ideological perceptions of the candidates. Democratic respondents stand out here, in that those who prefer a third choice are more conservative than those who prefer a Gore/Bush election. Given this, it might be assumed that third-party preference arises from the non-choice between a liberal Republican and a conservative Democrat, where Gore and Bush are considered as one and the same. However, the data provide little support for this explanation. Absolute differences between the two in effectiveness and traits have little impact on wanting a third-party choice. Neither does perceived differences between the two candidates on ideology. The only variable with an impact on third-party choice is the difference in thermometer ratings of the two candidates, such that feeling similarly about the two men increases third-party preference. The only similarity between Gore and Bush that matters then is a comparable dislike of these men.

It should be noted, however, that while Gore and Bush may be less-liked by respondents with a third-party preference, they retain their positions as the preferred candidates within their parties even among those party identifiers who prefer to have a third party choice (see Table 14). Democrats who prefer a third-party choice rank Gore highest, with Ventura ranked second. Republicans overwhelmingly rank Bush as their favorite candidate with Buchanan lagging a distant second. Ventura is the top choice for Independents, followed closely by Bush. Third-party preference is then propelled by negative feelings for Gore and Bush, but Republican and Democratic respondents still favor their respective party candidates over other possibilities.

Third-party preference is then not entirely a consequence of negative feelings about Gore and Bush. It is also impacted by positive feelings toward individuals who have been implicated as viable third-party challengers, in particular Jesse Ventura (see Table 14). This support is in large part due to disaffected Democrats, who rate him fifteen points higher on a thermometer scale, albeit lower than Gore. Ventura’s popularity among disaffected Democrats may be in part due to the fact that he is ideologically perceived to be liberal (see Table 6).

While Ventura is popular among disaffected Democrats, Buchanan seems to be the attractive challenger to Republicans with a third-party preference. His slight rise in thermometer rating is entirely attributable to Republican respondents, where those who want a third-party choice rate him six thermometer points higher (see Table 14). Warren Beatty also appears to have some capacity for drawing voters away from their traditional party attachments. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is rather negatively rated even by Independents wanting a third party choice


Gore and Bush currently have comfortable leads in their respective races. Yet neither one of these candidates should feel satisfied. Gore clearly has a number of limitations among the public’s perceptions to overcome and Bush, despite his lead remains more a "projected" candidate than a "known" candidate among a significant subset of the population.

In the Democratic caucus race, Bradley needs to exploit Gore’s weakness in the international arena and try to eat away at the perception that Gore is stronger on economic matters if he hopes to make inroads. The data indicate that Bradley is strongest among voters who are worried about the national economy getting worse. If he can exploit this weakness of Gore’s and become better known in Iowa, he has an opportunity to make inroads into Gore’s lead.

In comparison with the Bush, Gore exhibits some of the same weaknesses that Bradley could potentially capitalize on but has yet to exploit. Gore needs to worry less about how stiff he appears or whether he is an alpha or beta male and spend more time discussing his past successes, including some that can be attributed to the Clinton/Gore administration, as well as what he will do to maintain a prosperous economy in the future. He needs to stop answering questions about Clinton’s immoral behavior and speak instead about successes and what steps he will take to promote law enforcement in the future. Above all else, Gore needs to articulate a command of international affairs and demonstrate that he is prepared to deal with international crises.

Bush currently enjoys an advantage because the public is better informed about Gore’s limitations than they are about any specifics relating to the Governor other than his ability to attract a good deal of campaign funding. In short, he is currently strong, particularly among Independents, because the opponents, including the Vice President, are perceived as relatively weaker. As Table 6 demonstrates, he is not perceived as more centrist than Gore. In short, Bush leads despite any particular policy position or ideological orientation.

Finally, it is quite clear that there remains substantial desire in this country for a third party alternative. The real question is will that third party reflect a socially liberal view as projected by Ventura or a socially conservative orientation reflected by Buchanan? What is more obvious is that the continued widespread distrust of government that exists is producing a new fragmentation of political views in this country that is more pronounced than in previous decades.


The Heartland Poll is conducted by The University of Iowa Social Science Institute under the direction of Professor Arthur H. Miller. This study is based on a random-digit-dialed sample of 600 Iowa adults. The interviews were conducted by phone between October 18 and November 1, 1999. The interview took 18 minutes on average with an overall response rate of 65 percent after 5 callbacks. The sampling error for the survey is estimated at +/- 4.0%. For more information on the study, contact Professor Miller at (319) 335-2328 or by e-mail at

Charts and Tables

For copies of all charts, graphs, and tables related to the Heartland Poll, contact Mary Geraghty, University News Services at (319) 384-0011 or