By Thomas Hargrove
Scripps Howard News Service
Americans tend to know the presidential candidates' positions on major issues when the candidates focused their advertising dollars and stump speeches on them, according to a survey conducted by Ohio University.
But far fewer know how the candidates stand on environmental or economic policies the candidates were less vocal about, demonstrating that campaign speech has a powerful impact on public knowledge about the positions taken by President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
"On issues that campaigns and the (presidential) debates focused on, strong majorities of U.S. adults know the difference between the candidates," said Carl Stempel, a sociology professor at California State University, East Bay, and one of the authors of the survey.
Eighty percent of adults in the poll correctly knew that Romney is the candidate who has taken the position that "a major reason our economy is not growing faster is excessive government regulation."
But Americans were equally divided in their assessment of which candidate has "proposed to remove carbon dioxide from the list of pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act." Twenty-six percent said Obama holds this view while an identical percentage attributed this to Romney.
The Environmental Protection Agency under Obama declared carbon dioxide to be a dangerous pollutant, a far-reaching regulatory decision to which many U.S. manufacturers and Romney have objected. Some environmentalists have been critical of both campaigns for not focusing more upon issues related to global climate change.
"When asked about issues that campaigns and debates steered clear of, U.S. adults are much less informed," Stempel said.
Very few respondents (8 percent) in the survey correctly knew that both Obama and Romney supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program enacted by the Bush administration in 2008 to underwrite up to $700 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities. More than two-thirds thought this position was supported by Obama and opposed by Romney.
The study also found that 78 percent know Obama has exempted children of illegal immigrants from deportation; 74 percent know Romney opposed the recent direct federal bailout of U.S. auto companies; 71 percent know Romney has promised to increase military spending; and 67 percent know that Obama supports a firm 2014 date to end combat operations in Afghanistan.
The poll found that 54 percent said they think Romney would cut taxes for people earning $250,000 or more -- a contentious issue in the campaign. About 19 percent of strong Republicans in the poll answered that neither candidate would cut taxes for the wealthy while Democrats overwhelmingly believed that Romney would do so.
The survey found that people living in the 10 so-called battleground states that will determine the outcome of the election are slightly better informed on the candidates stand on military spending and taxes, possibly reflecting the enormous expenditure of campaign ads Obama and Romney have made in those states.
The telephone survey of 572 adults was conducted from Sept. 30 through Oct. 18. It has a margin of error of 5 percent. The study was sponsored by the School of Communications Studies at Ohio University under the direction of Associate Professor Jerry Miller.