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UC Berkeley Press Release

Study finds that the economy now matters little to prospective voters

– The economy is fading as an issue in the forefront of Americans' minds as they decide between the two major party presidential candidates.

And increasingly, potential voters are turning their attention to other issues, especially "family values."

That is the latest result of the Public Agendas and Citizen Engagement Survey (PACES) - a nationwide survey and joint venture of the University of California, Berkeley, Indiana University and the University of Maryland.

"Whereas Iraq and the economy were sucking the life out of any other issues in the campaign earlier on, now both of those concerns have subsided some as sore points - to a modest extent in the case of Iraq, but to a great extent in the case of the U.S. economy," said Douglas Strand, the PACES project manager and a political science lecturer at UC Berkeley.

"So far, Iraq continues to be a leading factor in the election, but Americans now appear to be giving a good deal of attention to the debates around traditional family values in the United States, probably because of the increased talk about 'values' by the two campaigns and especially because of the resurgence, at least for a time, of the gay marriage issue as the Constitutional ban came up for debates and votes in Congress."

The survey indicates that economic assessments have taken a dive in their influence on the choice that Americans are making between Bush and Kerry when the analysts compare two things: what the people interviewed said about the state of the economy and which candidate each of them then said they preferred for president.

For example, when the investigators looked at those interviewed who called themselves independents - identifying with no political party and much more likely than partisans to be "swing voters" - 28 percent preferred Kerry in the interviews done between mid-February and May 7 if they were optimistic about the economy over the year to come. But 54 percent of the independents preferred Kerry if they saw the economy negatively - a 26 percent rise in support for Kerry associated with a negative instead of a positive view.

Recently, however, in the interviews conducted between May 8 to July 25, 33 percent of the optimistic independents preferred Kerry, while support for Kerry among the pessimistic independents was 39 percent. In other words, now Kerry appears to get a much smaller boost in support - six percent instead of 26 percent - when these independents are pessimistic about the future of the economy.

The electoral importance of economic assessments dropped even more once the analysts took into account the opinions expressed on many other issues that may affect how people vote, such as views on terrorism, abortion, health care, gay marriage and the war in Iraq. In the survey as a whole, the overall fall in the importance of economic assessments is both large and statistically significant.

And while assessments of the economy mattered much less, the level of negativism about the economy also decreased, though to a lesser extent. In the mid-February to early-May period, 46 percent of all Americans in the survey said they thought the United States was either "not too close" or "a long way" from having a "strong economy." But in the more recent period, since early May, 38 percent took such a negative view of the current state of the economy.

The date of May 8 was chosen as a dividing line for comparison because that is the day when the Bush campaign got its second round of good economic news: Almost 300,000 new jobs were reported, and unemployment dropped a 10th of a percentage point. The previous round of good news, in early April, did not seem to undercut the support Kerry garnered from economic pessimism, probably, the analysts suspect, because the good news appeared too tentative.

"It appears that the better economic news since early May has not only reduced the percentage of the public that is gloomy about the future of the economy, but it has also inhibited the tendency of the pessimists to direct their disgruntlement at Bush," said Strand.

Meanwhile, the analysts found that family values has surged as a set of issues that Americans consider when they decide between Bush and Kerry. Earlier in the year, these issues mattered much less.

In the case of health care, the evidence was only suggestive and the increased importance appeared to center on the question of whether Medicare drug benefits should be extended to all seniors. The PACES scholars said they need more interviews in the future to confirm the increased importance of this issue in the election.

But in the survey, the increased importance of family values was clear, and most of this appeared to come from the increased importance of gay marriage, in particular. In the February to early May period, if independents supported a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, then 40 percent supported Bush instead of Kerry. But if independents opposed such an amendment, then support for Bush fell to 28 percent - a 12 percent difference.

Since May 8, however, if independents supported that same amendment, then they were stronger in their support for Bush - by a margin of 20 percent - compared to those opposing the amendment. This is roughly twice as large a difference as before.

Merrill Shanks, the principal investigator for the project and a UC Berkeley political science professor, noted that the economy may rise again as an important issue if the "short-term sluggishness" that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan referred to continues into the fall, or if Kerry is successful in making his case that the employment gains in the economy have been too limited.

"For now, however, it appears that Bush has made at least one gain in the campaign," Shanks said, "for the economy no longer appears to drag him down much, if at all, when Americans think about who they would vote for if the election were held today."

The PACES project has been surveying approximately 100 Americans nationwide each month since February. Total interviews have now reached 760. For more detailed information on the methodology of the survey and of the analysis in this study, go to the Survey Research Center's Web site at: http://srcweb.berkeley.edu/.

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