No. 1 election-year issue: voters' wallets

More than education or healthcare, just paying the bills is Americans' top concern.

Ask Brenda Quenneville what the most important political issues are this year, and she's quick to answer healthcare and education.

But quiz her about what she thinks about every day as she's getting her daughter ready for school or driving to work, and you get a different response.

"The big thing is to be able to pay the bills," says the single mother, who lives in Berlin, Vt.

The clich among pundits this political year is that the only galvanizing issue in the presidential race between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush is that there is no galvanizing issue. With the economy purring, American voters mention an array of top problems from education to healthcare to Social Security when pollsters check their political pulse.

None is dominant, but that could be deceiving. When polled to describe their top daily concerns in their own words, the vast majority, like Ms. Quenneville, mention things like the "cost of living" and "making ends meet."

"If candidates are trying to connect with people's personal lives,... they would say, 'Yeah, I can keep the economy strong,' " says Frank Newport, executive editor of the Gallup Poll in Princeton, N.J.

We want to be millionaires

If those poll numbers aren't enough evidence, look to the television ratings. "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" is solely responsible for ABC's skyrocket to the top of the network pack, and it has even spawned imitators, such as "Greed" and "21."

"Like the Beatles were the pop phenomenon of the 1960s, this is what 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?' is today," says Tom Smith, director of the general social survey National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. "Regis Philbin may be the only thing that's preoccupying the American mind, in the collective sense."

Mr. Smith says the economic reality of making a living is always important to people. Throughout the 1970s and early '80s, the economy was consistently the most important problem mentioned by as many as 70 percent of respondents.

That began to diminish as the economy recovered and federal budget deficits disappeared during the late '90s. As a result, other "problems" like education now top the list of key issues.

Messrs. Bush and Gore have made battling for the title of "educational reformer" the top of their agenda. But each is also trying to stake out the economic high ground, recognizing the issue's evergreen salience.

Bush contends his proposed tax cut will keep fueling the nation's historic economic boom. The vice president is playing heavily on his economic experience in the administration, but so far, voters give the edge to Bush.

In a Washington Post/ABC poll earlier this month, 47 percent said they trusted Bush to do a better job handling the national economy. Forty-one percent trusted Gore. Still, when respondents were asked if Gore would do a good job keeping the economy strong, nearly two-thirds said he would.

Quenneville, for one, is not surprised by that. The computer specialist for the state of Vermont says she doesn't know which candidate to trust on the economic question, and she's not really enthusiastic about either one.

"At this point, I don't know which way I'm going to go," she says.

Double vision

It's a common dilemma. Bush and Gore are running close in the polls, and most Americans don't find huge differences in the way they perceive them. Both have favorability ratings in the high 50s, with Democrats tending to like Gore, and Republicans leaning toward Bush.

At the same time, Americans' grasp of where each stands on the issues - from the economy to education to gun control - is slipping, according to Tom Patterson of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. As opposed to becoming steadily more informed as the election nears, Americans are actually forgetting about the issues.

Right after the New Hampshire primary in February, 40 percent of the people polled said they knew "whether Bush favors or opposes requiring people to register all the guns they own."

Of those, 24 percent got it right, knowing that he opposed it. In a poll released late last week, the number of people who thought they knew had dropped to 24 percent, and of those, only 13 percent had it right.

"The level of public attention has just plummeted," says Mr. Patterson, who heads up the Vanishing Voter Project. "And there's been nothing to renew their understanding of the candidates."

Ebb and flow of interest

But some pundits aren't worried about that. Traditionally, most Americans don't pay attention to the presidential race until the parties' conventions in the summer, and then interest drops off again until Labor Day.

After that, people like Quenneville will start tuning in to the serious campaigning.

And while she wants to be sure that whomever she votes for will try to fix the healthcare system and improve education, she also says she couldn't cast her ballot for anyone who would jeopardize the economy.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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