Clinton, moral character and polling data

If we should have learnt anything from recent politics, it is scepticism of polling. The second season of ‘Slow Burn‘, the incredible podcast, is all about Clinton’s impeachment. One of the things they mention is the confusing polling. Everyone expected the Lewinsky scandal to be politically damaging. But Clinton’s approval ratings went up and stayed up.

Why did the Republicans keep hammering away at this issue when they were on the wrong side of public opinion.

That sort of polling is somewhat misleading. Approval ratings are one thing. Votes are another. (The real measure of Republicans being out of touch was their losses in the mid-terms.) Here’s a poll abut voters in the Gore/Bush election, which came soon after impeachment.

According to Voter News Service, the personal quality that mattered most to voters was ‘honesty’. Voters who chose ‘honesty’ preferred Bush over Gore by over a margin of five to one. Forty Four percent of Americans said the Clinton scandals were important to their vote. Of these, Bush reeled in three out of every four.

It’s not so simple that Clinton’s approvals were high; his legacy contributed to Gore losing the White House. Similarly, Nixon’s VP Gerald Ford, who took over after Nixon resigned, lost to the evangelical Jimmy Carter. The Watergate scandal lingered on Ford like a bad smell. He was the only Republican to lose the White House between 1968 and 1988.

Yes Clinton won on issues not personality. Yes he had far more public support than anyone would have predicted. But no, his credibility was not incidental to the voters, especially independents.

Some people, including Clinton, thought Gore lost because he distanced himself from Clinton and Clinton’s strong economic performance. But this summary of polling shows you that it’s not as simple as the economy, stupid:

Polls conducted during 1998 and early 1999 showed that only about one-third of Americans supported Clinton’s impeachment or conviction. However, one year later, when it was clear that House impeachment would not lead to the ousting of the President, half of Americans said in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll that they supported impeachment but 57% approved of the Senate’s decision to keep him in office and two thirds of those polled said the impeachment was harmful to the country.

As the Daily Princetonian said: ‘Post-election polls found that, in the wake of Clinton-era scandals, the single most significant reason people voted for Bush was for his moral character.’ Of all the polling data available on this scandal, that seems to be the most significant and enduring.

p.s. Leon Nayfafk, who presented ‘Slow Burn’, has a new podcast. Find it here. I signed up to the podcast platform just to listen to this.

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