Voter values vs. fleeting opinion

Americans aren't an ideological people. At least, they can't be pigeonholed into neat ideological categories. Rather, many of us alone - or in groups - hold seemingly contradictory views on vital issues. These contradictory values don't reveal a fickle or hypocritical electorate - a mindless clay that can be molded by political spinners. Instead, Americans represent a core of values - some conservative, some liberal, and some neither.

Opinions and attitudes can be fleeting responses to issues that can change with the wind or with the language of a pollster's questions. Values on the other hand, are developed over the years and are cherished and sacrosanct. By polling values we can learn much as we approach an election year.

In the first "American Values" poll, part of a series Zogby International is conducting this campaign season, a majority of Americans say they're pro-choice on abortion, but 70 percent think aborting a fetus can be considered manslaughter. It suggests that Americans value the right to have choices - and that helps define who we are. They also have internalized the right of a woman to make a choice that directly affects her life. But they also accept, as the majority told us, that human life begins at conception. In this case, weighing equally held values, most Americans conclude that choice is the answer, not prisons filled with women and physicians.

Voters will remember Columbine throughout the 2000 campaign - it is one of the top three issues. After the shooting last spring, huge majorities of Americans told us loopholes that allow firearms to be purchased at gun shows without adequate background checks must be closed and that firearms should be licensed like automobiles. But majorities also felt we'd be better off if we simply enforce the laws we have - including mandatory jail time for committing a crime while carrying a firearm. Further, they said that the right to possess a firearm is a "citizen's constitutional right."

Americans want to shore up the Social Security system, but they'd also like the choice to personally invest some of their FICA deduction. This preference stayed constant when the stock market tanked last fall.

While a tax cut is a low priority measured against other issues, a majority feel they're overtaxed and deserve a "refund." But, if weighed against drying up the federal surplus and moving the federal government into a deficit, enthusiasm for a refund wanes considerably.

Americans don't favor the federal government abdicating its role in education, but they also support more teacher accountability and school vouchers.

And why not? Some values will be dominant in response to media and leadership. We can be both for and against troops in Bosnia and Kosovo, or for most-favored-nation status for China and equally for a tough line on human rights.

Many of the same Americans voted for Carter, Reagan, and Clinton - not because of ideology but because a candidate's package appealed to values dominant at the time. Carter promised a straight-forward honesty to Americans jaded by Watergate. Reagan did not win with a conservative message, he won because Americans were tired of stagflation and a president who tried to blame the people for a national malaise. And Clinton promised change at a time when the economy was coming out of a recession. In each case, Americans weren't responding to superficial stimuli but absorbing images and messages that appealed to what they cherished most.

How Americans respond to campaign messages, the TV news agenda, and leadership depends on which values are dominant at a given time. Campaigns do matter.

Even ideologues can reflect competing values. In a 1997 survey for the progressive New World Foundation, we found that even members of activist groups who defined themselves as "very liberal" or "progressive" could be pro-life on abortion, against affirmative action, and identify with Reagan on some issues. Similarly, we found recently in a poll for the National Environment Trust that significant numbers of people who describe themselves as "very conservative," also call themselves "environmentalists," believe global warming is the cause of droughts and hurricanes, and support stronger federal support to the Environmental Protection Agency.

As we learned last year, Americans can both condemn a president's behavior, be ashamed to have him as president, and not want to hire him as a CEO or supervisor, while - at the same time - stating emphatically that even presidents are entitled to privacy and shouldn't be removed for lapses in personal behavior.

As we enter an intense political campaign, we should closely watch what values appear dominant on key issues. Voters will tell us why they nominated a standard-bearer for their party, chose a majority for Congress, and elected a new leader. And one thing can be certain: Choices made won't be based on shallow images, public fickleness, or readings of position papers - but on how each candidate represented those ideals and values voters held most deeply.

Polling and interpreting these values will not only help determine the winners and losers, but also provide the real excitement and surprises of the campaign season.

*John Zogby is founder and president of Zogby International, an independent polling firm based in Utica, N.Y., and Washington.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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