Hill Poll: Candidates' behavior critical to how voters cast ballot

An overwhelming majority of likely voters think it’s important to consider a politician’s private foibles when assessing his or her suitability for office.

But they also contend that presidential campaigns have become dirtier over the past generation, perhaps indicating a reluctance to accept allegations against particular candidates at face value.

The results of this week’s The Hill Poll indicate that 85 percent of voters regard the way a politician conducts his or her private life as important to how he or she might discharge public duties. Forty-seven percent regard the candidate’s private life as “very important” and 38 percent say it is “somewhat important” in this regard.

The Hill Poll also suggests that 67 percent of voters feel presidential politics have become dirtier over the past generation, while a mere 4 percent say they have become cleaner. Roughly 1 in 4, or 27 percent, believe the ethical nature of presidential battles has stayed about the same as it was in the past.

The findings come as Republican candidate and surprise front-runner Herman Cain continues to grapple with allegations that he sexually harassed at least three women during his stint as head of the National Restaurant Association in the late 1990s.

The Georgia businessman denies wrongdoing. But his campaign has struggled to right its ship since being hit with the story, which was first published by Politico eight days ago.

Still, the full effect of the episode upon Cain’s standing remains open to question. Several polls taken since the story emerged have shown little slippage in his ratings. His aides say the campaign has received a flood of donations in the past week.

The Hill Poll provides food for thought for the media as well as for politicians. News organizations are viewed poorly in terms of political neutrality and their broader ethical conduct.

Almost half of likely voters (48 percent) believe news organizations favor Democrats, according to the poll. This figure overshadows the 23 percent who say the media favor Republicans. Twenty-four percent of voters say news organizations are “reasonably balanced.”

A majority of voters also contend that news organizations are generally unethical, with a total of 55 percent describing them in those terms. Around 1 in 3 voters — 35 percent — accept that news organizations are “somewhat ethical,” but only 8 percent view them as “very ethical.”

Thirty-one percent of voters view news organizations as being “too friendly” with politicians while 21 percent say the media are “too hostile.”

The Hill Poll showed a gender disparity on the issue of politicians’ private lives. Fifty-four percent of women view private conduct as “very important” in determining a candidate’s suitability for office. The figure for men is significantly lower, at 39 percent.

Curiously, voters in the highest income band identified in the poll are also much less likely than lower-income voters to view private conduct as very important. Among those earning more than $100,000 per year, just 29 percent believe private conduct is very important. By contrast, 61 percent of those earning between $20,000 and $40,000 hold this view.

In terms of the conduct displayed in presidential campaigns, the percentage who believe the battles have gotten cleaner within the past generation stays consistent — and tiny — across demographic and ideological groups.

There is one notable feature, however: White voters are much more likely than black voters to believe presidential campaigns have gotten dirtier rather than merely stayed the same.

Seventy percent of whites feel they have become dirtier, compared to 53 percent of blacks. Forty-seven percent of black voters believe the ethical nature of presidential campaigning has remained the same. This view is shared by only 23 percent of whites.

The Hill Poll was conducted by Pulse Opinion Research on Nov. 3, 2011, and surveyed 1,000 likely voters. It has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Click here to view data from The Hill Poll.