ElonPoll finds lack of knowledge of candidates’ issue positions

North Carolina voters are paying close attention to the upcoming presidential election. But all of that attention has not translated into widespread knowledge of the candidates’ key issue positions, according to the latest Elon University Poll.

The statewide survey, conducted Oct. 25-28, generated a sample of 609 registered voters and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.97 percentage points.

The survey found that 74 percent of respondents said they are following the presidential race “very closely” or “closely,” up from 69 percent in September.

The heightened attention, however, may not be leading to more accurate recall of the presidential candidates’ key issue positions. When asked to identify which candidate had adopted specific stances on four issues, 58 percent gave no more than two correct answers.

“While a large percentage of voters may be focusing on presidential politics, they do not seem to be retaining information that has played a significant part in the campaign,” said Tim Vercellotti, director of the Elon University Poll.

Fifty-four percent correctly identified President George W. Bush as a proponent of allowing workers to invest part of their Social Security savings in the stock market. Seventy-one percent also accurately named Bush as a supporter of a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage solely as being between a man and a woman.

Sixty-four percent identified Sen. John Kerry as a proponent of rolling back the recent tax cut on those earning more than $200,000 per year. Sixty-nine percent correctly indicated that Kerry supports increased federal support for stem cell research.

Participants in the survey also assessed the importance of issue positions in choosing candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate. Economic considerations topped the concerns in both races.

In the gubernatorial contest between incumbent Mike Easley and former state senator Patrick Ballantine, 91 percent said candidates’ plans for creating jobs in North Carolina are very important or important to their decision-making process, followed by plans to make health care more affordable (90 percent), tax cuts (67 percent) and creating a state lottery (52 percent).

In the Senate race between Congressman Richard Burr and banker Erskine Bowles, 90 percent of registered voters said that candidates’ plans for job creation were very important or important in choosing a candidate, followed by plans to increase homeland security (84 percent), and positions on privatizing Social Security (71 percent), abortion (66 percent), free trade (62 percent), and gay marriage (54 percent).

“Concerns about job creation seem to be in the forefront of voters’ minds as they make their choices in the governor’s race and the Senate race,” Vercellotti said. “Traditional hot button issues, such as abortion, gay marriage, and the state lottery, seem to be less important to the voters.”

The poll also asked voters to evaluate the tone of the television and radio advertising in the Senate race. Nearly 60 percent said the ads had been mostly negative, while 31 percent said they were evenly divided between a positive or negative tone, and only 3 percent said the ads were mostly positive. When asked whether the tone of the ads had prompted them or discouraged them from voting, 74 percent said that ads have had no effect.

When the Elon University Poll posed the same questions to voters after the 2002 Senate race between Bowles and Elizabeth Dole, the eventual winner, a larger proportion of voters, 68 percent, said the ads in that race had been mostly negative. Nineteen percent said the ads discouraged them from voting.

“The difference in the numbers suggests that, although this year’s Senate race has seen its share of negative ads, it ranks behind the 2002 race in terms of contentiousness,” Vercellotti said. “At least that is how voters see the race.”

This poll is the 26th conducted by the Elon Institute for Politics and Public Affairs since it was established in September 2000. The non-partisan Elon Poll conducts frequent statewide scientific telephone polls on issues of importance to North Carolinians. The poll results are shared with media, citizens and researchers to facilitate representative democracy and public policy making through the better understanding of the opinions and needs of North Carolina citizens.

The Elon Poll is conducted by students who work under the direction of faculty members in the political science department. A computerized polling center located on campus is equipped with sophisticated statistical software and 38 telephone polling stations.