July 27, 2000

A Question of Character

Gore as Scandal Tainted

Usually, the discussion of Gore as scandal tainted came in the form of reminders of Gore's questionable fundraising. Often, the discussion was about how the Bush camp planned to make hay with it.

"By autumn, you'll be seeing the Temple Shot almost constantly on the tube at home. It is a fairly typical, if slightly goofy, political picture; it only apparently gathers power when you know that this was the place and the day that Gore, apparently unknowingly, collected more than $50,000 in illegal campaign contributions," wrote David Von Drehle in the Washington Post in late April.

In some venues, particularly TV talk shows, the assertions about Gore, even from media personalities, could be even more rhetorical than from rival candidates. Listen to talk show host Chris Matthews:

"Do you think the American people are so jaded by what they've seen over the years that they don't care if a guy goes to Buddhist monasteries and has nuns rip off $5,000 checks and hand 'em to him and claim afterwards he was drinking iced tea and must have been in the bathroom and he didn't know what—I mean, these are—these aren't funny."

When you combine the statements that asserted Gore had scandal problems with the statements that refuted this, overall Gore and scandal made up nearly half of all the statements (46%) from the three themes we studied about the vice president.

As we said before, this scandal theme was established early on. Over half, 57%, of these assertions appeared in March and another 21% in February. Less than a quarter of the assertions of Gore's problems with scandal came in the last three months, between April and June.

Evidence For Gore & Scandal
Voter Interaction *%
Public Record 64
Recent Remarks 7
Camp. Platform 1
Tactics/Rhetoric 1
Opponent Attack 8
Friends' Remarks *
Past Personal Life 0
Poll 1
Other 8
 
No Evidence 10
Total 100

Television played a big role in conveying the scandal theme, especially TV talk shows. Fully 17% of the statements about Gore's ties to scandal came from just one prime-time talk program, Hardball with Chris Matthews on CNBC.

The scandal issue was also notable in that there was more evidence for it than any other. Fully 90% of the references offered some form of evidence. Usually—64% of the time—that evidence was interpreting Gore's public record.

The study also tried to get at the reason a particular point about a candidate's character was raised. Bill Bradley, for instance, argued that telling untruths during a campaign raised questions about whether you could trust someone once they were in office.

What was the point or significance of Gore's scandal problems as the press presented them? Usually they were tied to how he was running his campaign rather than how he might govern the country. Half of the statements about Gore and scandal were tied to his tactics and strategy. Not quite a third (31%) concerned his leadership and just 3% had to do with his relations with voters, or whether it would affect his chances of winning.

Another 10% of the time, Gore's scandal problems were raised so they could be refuted.

Despite the media's emphasis on the scandal theme and Gore, however, the subject does not dominate how the public views the vice president. Only a quarter of Americans attribute being "involved in scandals in the past" with Gore in particular. More people associate Gore with scandal than they do Bush, but only by eight percentage points. A slightly larger percentage attribute this to "neither" candidate.

In addition, nearly half of those surveyed, 47%, say it wouldn't affect their vote if they learned more about Gore being tainted by ethical problems.