- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2000

Are voters paying much attention to the 2000 presidential campaign and what the candidates are saying?

Many frustrated political pollsters, who make a handsome living measuring public opinion, complain that the voters are not closely following the race for president and don't know much about the proposals being made by the candidates and probably won't until the conventions.

Other polling analysts say that voters are taking their usual pre-convention summertime breather from politics before gearing up for the general election, when they will become more fully engaged.

"Nobody's paying attention to the politicians right now," said Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who polls for candidates and news organizations alike.

A particularly frustrating experience occurred last week in Chicago, when Mr. Luntz was measuring the opinions of a small focus group of 16 swing voters. He said he was stunned to find out that "13 of the 16 had not heard anything about [Texas Gov.] George W. Bush's Social Security retirement accounts proposal."

"Right now, most of the public's mental TV sets are turned off in this campaign," said Richard Maullin, a Democratic pollster in Santa Monica, Calif.

"No one's focusing on the race and they won't until the conventions or the debates," said Neil Newhouse, a veteran Republican pollster.

Mr. Newhouse thinks that the 6 to 8 percentage point lead that Mr. Bush has over Vice President Al Gore probably won't change much during this summer period when Americans are understandably focused on other things, like vacations and what to do with children out of school.

"By and large, voters don't look at elections until September," said Curt Gans, who heads the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

"And we've had a progressive erosion in interest in politics for the last 40 years," Mr. Gans said.

As for the public not knowing much about the candidates' proposals like Mr. Bush's Social Security reform plan some experts say that voters have more opinions about such issues than quick poll questions suggest.

"The overall impression that the public is not fully engaged is correct, but it's not as dire as some pollsters would make it appear," said Steven Kull, director of the Center on Policy Attitudes, which analyzes polling.

"People have a lot of information that they cannot retrieve quickly. They do arrive at conclusions," Mr. Kull said.

"But there is some evidence that the public thinks that the campaign is overplayed in the media and they get tired of it," he said.

"There was more interest in the midst of the early primaries. Now it's less, which is not unusual in the summer. It will heat up when we get closer to the election," he said.

"Right now, Gore and Bush are not engaged in a dialogue that engages the public's values. There isn't some big issue," he said.

How much attention the news media give to campaign issues is another factor in how engaged the public is on a given issue, say other analysts.

"When the press is absorbed in a story, the American people become absorbed in a story," said Marvin Kalb, Washington director of the www.VanishingVoter.org, a Web site that studies the electorate.

One story that broke last week and did not absorb the media very much was a complaint by a couple living on disability who rent a house from Mr. Gore. They accused him of being a "slumlord" because he had not repaired the broken plumbing in their home.

The story received little national news media attention and Mr. Gore was able to largely contain any political damage it might have caused his campaign.

Another story last week dealt with internal Justice Department memorandums, in which some department attorneys said that a special prosecutor should be named to investigate Mr. Gore's role in the campaign-finance scandal. It received relatively weak media play as well and "failed to arouse voters," Mr. Newhouse said.

"When there is a great deal of press attention to a story, the American people fasten on to that story. But when there is little attention by the press, it goes right past them," Mr. Kalb said.

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