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American public still has much to learn about presidential candidates’ issue positions as campaign end draws near, Annenberg Survey shows

Many Americans are unable to identify where the major party candidates stand on various issues ranging from abortion to free trade to closing the base at which alleged enemy fighters are held at Guantanamo Bay, according to recent data collected by the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey (NAES). Only 30 percent of adults were able to identify Senator John McCain as the presidential candidate more likely to support free trade agreements, like NAFTA. Statistically comparable low levels of understanding of the candidate positions on free trade were detected by the NAES in September (see Table 1).

On the issue of abortion in September, 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. This percentage increased slightly to 47 percent in October.

In October, only 9 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 44 percent of respondents incorrectly identified Obama as the sole candidate who favored that position.  Comparable levels of mistakes on the Guantanamo Bay question were found in the September data.

“It does not appear that much learning about the candidates’ issue positions has taken place during the general election campaign,” noted Kate Kenski, a senior analyst for the National Annenberg Election Survey and an assistant professor of communication at the University of Arizona. “From September to October, we detected a few increases in learning on topics such as mandatory health insurance for children and elimination of the Bush tax cuts for people above a certain income level, but those increases in learning were small.”

There were seven 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, eliminating the Bush tax cuts for people above a certain income level, providing a $5,000 tax credit to help uninsured families buy health insurance, being the first to call for a surge of troops in Iraq, providing tax cuts to the middle class, and proposing taxation of health benefits an employee receives from an employer (see Tables 1 and 2).

Study participants had some difficulty answering basic questions about the political system (see Table 3). 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 (32 percent) of respondents knew that it takes two-thirds of the U.S. Senate and House to override a presidential veto. About three out of five (60 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 and between October 19, 2008 and October 23, 2008 from 1,286 adults in the United States. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 1.4 percentage points for the sample overall in September and was plus or minus 2.7 percentage points for the sample overall in October.