July 27, 2000

A Question of Character

Bush Coasts

While Bush's family connections are easily cited, this theme hardly dominated the press coverage of the Texas governor through months leading up to the convention.

In all, they made up 15% of all the Bush statements (10% suggesting he does coast and another 5% arguing that he does not).

In the end, it was the least common thread of those we examined.

This started out as a strong theme but then quickly dropped off. Nearly three quarters of the assertions, 73%, about his reliance on family occurred in February and early March, when he was struggling, while only 9% occurred in June.

When this assertion did come, it was often the fruit of reporters synthesizing Bush's background and drawing conclusions. "It does seem that from the very beginning, Mr. Bush got a crucial helping hand in life because of his name and family connections. Otherwise, he would probably not have been admitted to Andover and then to Yale," reporter Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times in mid June.

Evidence for Bush's Family Ties
Voter Interaction 5%
Public Record 0
Recent Remarks 2
Camp. Platform 2
Tactics/Rhetoric 8
Opponent Attack 1
Friends' Remarks 8
Past Personal Life 15
Poll 2
Other 5
 
No Evidence 52
Total 100

Sometimes the aspersions about Bush came from voters. "All he's got is the name recognition," the Washington Post quoted South Carolina voter Eileen Rodriguez Harding in mid-February as saying, "He's got the money, but it's his daddy's coattails."

Journalists—rather than other candidates—were the central carriers of this theme. A full 64% of these assertions came from journalists and half of those, 34%, were pure opinion rather than analysis that cited some evidence.

Voters were also more likely than usual to remark on Bush's family ties. Voters were the source for one-in-ten of the statements about Bush's family ties compared to only one-in-thirty-three overall.

Candidates, on the other hand, didn't seem to want to touch the subject of Bush's family connections. They were three times less likely than average to be the source for this theme, 7% versus 25% overall. One possible reason: Al Gore has a few family connections of his own.

In the end, more than half of all the statements about Bush's reliance on family offered no supporting evidence. Maybe the Bush family connections are so well known they required no explanation. Or maybe, as we suggested earlier, the reporting on Bush during the pre-convention era involved surprisingly little digging into his record and background.

Whatever the reason, the press did little to establish through any reporting of his life that Bush's accomplishments were the result of nepotism. In fact, anecdotal evidence upon reading the stories suggests that the background pieces about Bush's upbringing often refuted claims of elitism and reliance on family.

Half the time assertions about Bush's family ties related to the Bush camp's tactical moves or to attempts to connect better with voters. Less than 10% of the statements raised Bush's background in the context of his leadership ability.

Once again, however, the choices the press was making in terms of coverage of character did not match public attitudes about the subject. More Americans attributed the idea of "relying on family connections to get ahead" than they did any of the six character traits to either of the candidates, even though the same thing might easily be said of Al Gore, himself the son of a prominent Senator.

It is less clear how much this matters to people, at least in a race between the sons of two prominent men. Americans were equally divided as to whether or not nepotism would make them less likely or make no difference in voting for Bush.