Voter split was reaction to Clinton as much as issues
In exit polls, Clinton scandals weighed on many voters, heading off a big Gore victory.
The president thought Americans had moved beyond it. The vice president thought he could distance himself from it. In the end, however, there was no escaping the Clinton scandal. It hung over the electorate like a thick fog that wouldn't lift.
Of all the trends that have emerged from this agonizingly close presidential election - the ideological divide among voters, the surge of turnout in key battleground states - the Clinton effect may be one of the most significant. Without it, some pollsters even venture to say, Al Gore would have been the clear and decisive winner.
"If we hadn't had the scandals, then Gore would have probably won clearly," says independent pollster John Zogby.
What struck Mr. Zogby and others was how much this electorate split along traditional lines - and how, against this even background, anti-Clinton sentiment moved votes. "It was a huge factor," says public-opinion specialist Karlyn Bowman.
As expected, women, unions, and minorities supported the vice president. Abortion foes, gun advocates and the religious right fell behind George W. Bush. Democrats and Republicans voted for each of their candidates with just about the same intensity.
But according to the Voter News service exit poll, a survey of 13,049 voters taken on election day, 44 percent of voters said that the Clinton scandals were very important or somewhat important in their presidential choice. Of those voters, the vast majority chose Bush.
Even a positive view of Clinton's job performance was not enough to hold some. Of the 20 percent of voters who approved of Clinton's job performance but disapproved of him personally, a third voted for the Texas governor. And 14 percent of those who voted for Clinton in 1996 chose Mr. Bush this time.
"I always thought there was a Clinton dome over this election," says Democratic pollster Peter Hart. Now the numbers show it was a "defining element," he says. "It influenced so much of what went on - the rhythm, the dialogue of the whole election."
Not unlike the 1976 election after the Watergate scandal, integrity and honesty were of great significance to voters this year.
Among many qualities listed as important in a president, more voters pointed to honesty than to any other.
Yet both candidates polled about the same in honesty ratings. And managing the government actually trumped moral leadership when voters were asked to choose between the two.
Still, morality turns out to have been the defining aspect of the Bush campaign - not his big tax cut, which the candidate made one of his priorities.
Nearly 60 percent of voters thought the country was on the wrong moral track, and of those, 62 percent voted for Bush. In contrast, only 13 percent of voters thought taxes were the most important issue.
But the morality issue played both ways. More than a fourth of voters said news of Bush's arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol was somewhat or very important to their vote.
The Clinton factor also played two ways - hurting Gore on morality, but helping him on the economy.
Seventy percent of voters thought Clinton was either very or somewhat responsible for the good economy, and a strong majority of those people went for Gore. Voters also considered the economy and jobs the most important issue - and 61 percent of these voters supported Gore, compared to 36 percent for Bush.
The economy wasn't the only issue that helped Gore. Voters also fell behind him on a prescription-drug benefit, Social Security, and education.
In many ways, the closeness of the race was not because of some great divide among the public, but because, in the absence of any overwhelming issue, the candidates themselves failed to grab voters.
Indeed, 50 percent of Gore voters had reservations about him. Former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta faults the vice president for not being comfortable with who he was until the very end. He suffered from "consultant overload" in his determination to win, Mr. Panetta says.
On the other hand, 46 percent of Bush voters also had reservations about their guy.
"It's almost as if the candidates weren't there, and all we had were the fault lines" of demographics, party, income, and ideology to go on, says Andrew Kohut, of the Pew Research Center. With that in mind, he concludes, "If there was a clear, good opinion of the Clinton years, it would have been to the benefit of Al Gore."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society