Clinton's popularity proves to be amazingly resilient Polls show tolerance and grave reservations

January 31, 1998|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Publicly accused of sexual impropriety and under investigation for potential criminal offenses, President Clinton saw his approval ratings change markedly in public opinion polls this week. They went up.

Pollsters say they are not surprised, given Clinton's personal history, the surging American economy and the fact that his State of the Union speech came in the middle of this furor.

"We're prosperous. We're not at war. He's a master at giving a speech," said Republican pollster Linda DiVall. "What's for people not to like about his job performance?"

Still, the seemingly incongruous fact remains that at the height of the current crisis, Clinton has the highest job performance rating of his presidency. With the traditional "bounce" of 7 to 10 points from the State of the Union, Clinton's gets a positive grade from more than 70 percent of the public, up in the rarefied air with such popular modern presidents as John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

"People think he's leading the country in the right direction," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "And they care a lot more about their own lives than what you all have been writing about."

Ten days ago, Americans were barraged with a new round of lurid allegations about the president, beginning with reports that he had sex inside the White House with an unpaid intern in her early 20s. Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr quickly began investigating whether the president had committed perjury when he testified about the intern, Monica Lewinsky, or whether he'd obstructed justice in trying to keep the matter quiet.

Attacking the accusers

At first, Clinton and his aides seemed to stumble around in a fog. But this week, they unleashed an aggressive response of answering no questions -- and of attacking his accusers, the press and the independent counsel.

According to the polls, every bit of it has been working. Frank Newport, managing editor of the Gallup Poll, said his organization's surveys have unearthed three factors that are helping insulate Clinton from political harm:

The public has little love for Clinton's newest accuser. "Monica Lewinsky herself is the most negatively rated person in this whole drama," said Newport, whose polls chart her "unfavorable" rating close to 70 percent.

The attacks on Starr have hit home. Asked a week ago if they had a favorable or unfavorable impression of Starr, Americans who knew of him were split 50-50. A poll taken two days ago showed his favorable rating at 20 percent, with his unfavorable at 38 percent.

Americans are exhibiting signs of a backlash against the media. TV news ratings and newspaper and magazine sales are up since the scandal broke, but 72 percent of those surveyed say the media is covering this crisis "too much."

"People [are] fascinated by the story -- even somewhat disgusted -- but they aren't connecting it with the job [Clinton] is doing," said Democratic pollster Donald H. Herche, president of Public Opinion Research, based in Sykesville, Md. "Job performance is tied to what's going on in the real world -- the economy, foreign policy, things like that.

Few illusions

"When the guy was elected in '92, there were few illusions he was the most faithful guy in the world," Herche added. "If you had a different question -- 'What kind of husband do you rate him?' -- you might come out differently."

Actually, pollsters pose questions that get to such issues. One of them, in a CBS survey done a week ago, asked: "Does President Clinton share America's moral values?" A year ago, 55 percent said yes, 38 percent no. Today, those numbers are nearly reversed, with 41 percent saying yes and 51 percent no.

That hints at grave reservations about Clinton's character that voters have long harbored. Still, the public may have more tolerance for sexual adventures than political experts appreciate.

Asked if Clinton should resign if he had an affair with Lewinsky, 65 percent of respondents in a Mason-Dixon poll said no, while only 22 percent said yes. Women were much less likely to believe that that should be a disqualifying factor.

The public also differentiates between scandals and job performance. If the choice is a president who is above reproach or a sound economy, they'll take the latter. Ronald Reagan's lowest poll numbers did not come at the height of the Iran-contra scandal, but at the depths of the 1982 recession.

George Bush found out about this the hard way. After the Persian Gulf war, his job rating stood as high as 90 percent. But as the economy eroded, so did this support -- and Bush ended up losing to Clinton in a three-way race in 1992, garnering only 37 percent of the vote.

Is Clinton ripe for that kind of free-fall? The economy shows no signs of weakening, and Americans are confident the nation is on the right track, another key indicator of presidential popularity.

On the other hand, there is something else in the numbers that gives Clinton loyalists pause: Americans are telling pollsters that they haven't made up their minds yet.

"It's probably a testament to the American public's common sense," White House press secretary Mike McCurry said. "They have not rushed to judgment, unlike some others, and they want to have some time to consider all the facts."

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, agrees. "They don't know what to make of this," he said. "It's also hard to make firm conclusions about public opinion in a time of high emotion -- and this is a whirlwind."

Kohut says the first thing that will happen is that next week or the week after, Clinton's popularity will ease back down to pre-State of the Union levels. After that, Clinton's popularity may depend on where the investigation leads. "If they start to focus on, 'Has he lied to us?' -- or perjury -- it could change."

Pub Date: 1/31/98

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