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American public has much to learn about presidential candidates’ issue positions, National Annenberg Election Survey shows

Many Americans are unable to identify where the major party candidates’ stand on various issues ranging from health care to abortion to free trade, according to recent data collected by the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey. Only a little over a quarter (28 percent) of adults were able to identify Senator John McCain as the presidential candidate more likely to support free trade agreements like NAFTA.
Over one-third (37 percent) of adults mistakenly believe that Senator Barack Obama is the candidate who proposes providing individuals 2,500 dollars or families 5,000 dollars to help them buy their own health insurance. That is in fact Senator McCain’s position. Only 20 percent of respondents, however, attributed that health insurance plan to McCain.
Only 8 percent of survey respondents knew that both McCain and Obama favor closing the base at which alleged enemy fighters are held at Guantanamo Bay. Over 43 percent of respondents incorrectly identify Obama as the sole candidate who favors that position.
On the issue of abortion, around two-fifths (42 percent) of respondents knew that McCain is the candidate who favors overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
On the issue of reducing pollution, only 9 percent of adults knew that both candidates favor reducing pollution through a process called cap and trade.
"As data from the 2000 and 2004 National Annenberg Election Surveys confirm,” noted Kate Kenski, a senior analyst for the National Annenberg Election Survey and an assistant professor of communication at the University of Arizona, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, "voters of all educational levels learn from watching debates."*
"Our research in 2000 also suggested that debates can have a significant effect on voters’ attitudes,” added Jamieson.**
There were three candidate issue position questions in which over half of adults were able to identify correctly the major party presidential candidates’ issue positions: opposing the Iraq War, mandating that children have health insurance, and eliminating the Bush tax cuts for people above a certain income level.
Over three-fourths (78 percent) knew that Obama was the candidate who opposed the war in Iraq. Three-fifths (61 percent) of adults were able to identify Obama as the candidate who is proposing a health care reform that mandates that children have health insurance. A comparable percentage (63 percent) was able to identify Obama as the candidate who would eliminate the Bush tax cuts for people above a certain income level.
Study participants had some difficulty answering basic questions about the political system (see Table 2). About two-thirds (66 percent) knew that the Supreme Court was the institution who has the final responsibility of determining whether or not a law is constitutional. A little over one-third (36 percent) of respondents knew that it takes two-thirds of the U.S. Senate and House to override a presidential veto. Over half (56 percent) of adults knew that the Democrats have more members in the U.S. House than do the Republicans.
Data for this study were collected between September 5, 2008 and September 22, 2008 from 4,683 adults in the United States. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 1.4 percentage points for the sample overall.