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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Election Failed to Enlighten Voters

WASHINGTON -- After hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign spending, countless news stories, three nationally televised debates and hours of advertising on television and radio, Americans knew no more about how the two major presidential candidates stood on key issues when they voted than they did when the fall campaign began in September, according to a national survey by The Washington Post, Harvard University and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.


But even though voters did not know more as a result of the fall campaign, they apparently knew enough: A majority said they were sufficiently knowledgeable about President Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and the issues to make an informed choice on Election Day.


The post-election survey also found that more than seven in 10 said this year's race was no more negative than previous presidential campaigns. And just over half said the news media's treatment of the candidates was generally fair, though a larger proportion thought the media had been less fair to Dole than to Clinton.


A total of 1,205 randomly selected adults who said they voted Nov. 5 were interviewed from Nov. 6 to 10 for this survey, which included questions asked in a companion poll in September among registered voters who said they were "certain" to cast ballots in the November election. The polls are part of a series of surveys by The Washington Post, Harvard and the Kaiser Family Foundation measuring how much Americans know about public affairs.


Eight in 10 voters -- 79 percent -- knew Dole rather than Clinton favored making it more difficult for a woman to obtain a legal abortion, virtually identical to the 81 percent who knew Dole's position in September. One voter in 10 got it wrong, saying Clinton favored stricter limits on abortion and the remainder didn't know where the candidates stood on the issue.


Seven in 10 -- 72 percent -- correctly said Clinton favored maintaining affirmative-action efforts in hiring, contracting and college admissions, identical to the results of the September survey. In both polls, three in 10 either mistakenly thought Dole was the stronger advocate of affirmative action or didn't know.


Nearly two out of three -- 63 percent -- knew Dole favored a greater increase in defense spending, essentially unchanged from September when 65 percent expressed that view. In September and after Election Day, one out of three mistakenly thought Clinton favored bigger defense increases or didn't know.


The survey found that voters who were more knowledgeable about the candidates received their campaign information from different sources than less-knowledgeable voters.


Voters who were more familiar with the candidates and their positions were more likely to rely on newspapers and radio news programs for their information about the campaign. Voters with less knowledge about the campaign tended to rely on a wider variety of news sources. Their primary source of campaign information was television -- more than six in 10 said television news programs were a major source of election news. But they also were more likely than the more-informed voters to rely on organized labor and the Internet as primary information sources.