The race for the White House nudged closer in the latest ABC News tracking poll, with John Kerry solidifying his base coming out of the first presidential debate last week. The tighter contest raises the stakes for the next Bush-Kerry debate Friday night.
The poll found 49 percent of likely voters now favor President Bush, 47 percent Kerry and 1 percent Ralph Nader, compared with 51 percent/45 percent/1 percent in Tuesday's tracking poll. The poll is based on a rolling three-day average of survey results, with interviews for the latest sample completed Tuesday night.
While the change is slight, and within the margin of sampling error, it moves what had been a Bush lead into a closer race, and puts him below 50 percent for the first time since the Republican convention. It occurred in part because Kerry has reversed Democratic Party defections: He'd been losing more Democrats to Bush than Bush had been losing Republicans to Kerry. Now their defections are about even; 8 percent of Democrats prefer Bush, while 7 percent of Republicans back Kerry.
Minor defections are normal; it becomes trouble when a candidate loses his base disproportionately. In 2000 there was only a slight gap: Bush won 11 percent of Democrats while Al Gore got 8 percent of Republicans. In 1988, by contrast, Michael Dukakis lost 17 percent of Democrats, while winning only 8 percent of Republicans.
There are about even numbers of Democrats and Republicans in this survey — 37 percent of likely voters are Democrats, 36 percent Republicans. Independents, 23 percent of respondents, are dividing close to evenly — 48 percent for Bush, 45 percent for Kerry.
Kerry's better showing in his base fits with a shift in underlying views after the first Bush-Kerry debate. As reported, the Massachusetts senator got an eight-point boost in the number of his supporters who are "very enthusiastic" about his candidacy, as well as an improved favorability rating. Strong enthusiasm among Bush supporters, on the other hand, dropped eight points after the first debate.
The change in this poll occurred mainly among men, where Bush now leads by 51 percent to 45 percent, compared with a double-digit advantage previously. The two are even among women, at 48 percent support each. In 2000, by contrast, Bush won men by 11 points and Al Gore won women by the same margin.
As reported previously, debate watchers in a separate ABC News poll Tuesday night picked Dick Cheney as the vice-presidential debate winner by an eight-point margin, 43 percent to 35 percent, with 19 percent calling it a tie. Three factors helped him: Republicans disproportionately tuned in (38 percent of viewers were Republicans, 31 percent Democrats); Bush supporters were more apt to say Cheney won than Kerry supporters were to say Sen. John Edwards won; and independents were very narrowly (five points) more apt to say Cheney won.
The audience for the first presidential debate, by contrast, was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, 35 percent apiece. There have been partisan differences in audiences before; in the second presidential debate in 2000, the audience was more Republican by 40 percent to 31 percent. In a survey of debate watchers, part of winning includes getting people on your side to watch.
As is usually the case, candidate support among debate watchers did not immediately change Tuesday night — they were about evenly divided before and after the debate. There was, similarly, no immediate change in vote choice after the first presidential debate, which viewers, by a nine-point margin, said Kerry won. When debates have an effect, it tends to be more gradual and subtle than immediate. Kerry's accomplishment in the first debate was to improve his personal appeal and the enthusiasm of his supporters. His effort Friday will be to build on those; Bush's, to knock them back.
Domestic issues are expected to be a focus of this week's presidential debate, with the economy one likely point of contention. It's been one of the three top-cited voting issues all year (along with terrorism and Iraq), but its impact remains unclear.
Likely voters in this survey are evenly split, 30 percent to 30 percent, on whether they're better off or worse off financially since Bush became president — Ronald Reagan's famous question in the 1980 election. By contrast, fewer said they were better off — 22 percent, with 32 percent worse off — in the summer of 1992, as Bush's father headed toward defeat.
In this election, by more than 8-1, those who are better off prefer Bush and those who are worse off choose Kerry. The tipping point may be the four in 10 voters who say they're the same financially; they edge slightly toward Bush by 52 percent to 45 percent.
Partisanship is a very strong factor in these views. Among Republicans, 49 percent say they've gotten better off under Bush, just 10 percent worse off. Among Democrats the numbers are reversed — 52 percent worse off, 8 percent better. Independents, in the middle as ever, divide about evenly.
Consumer confidence, as measured in the weekly ABC News/Money magazine poll, also shows vast partisan divides, greater than usual even in an election year. Confidence overall slipped to its lowest level in more than three months in this week's ABC/Money poll, but it's still well above its low for the year, and far above its 1992 levels.
Taxes and the Deficit
Likely voters divide almost evenly on whom they trust more to handle taxes (48 percent/46 percent Bush/Kerry), and Kerry has a small five-point edge over Bush on handling the federal budget deficit, 48 percent to 43 percent.
These divisions also are highly partisan. On the deficit, though, fewer Republicans prefer Bush (80 percent) than Democrats trust Kerry (89 percent) — and independents favor Kerry by a nine-point margin. It's therefore an issue Kerry may try to press Friday night.
An open question, though, is the salience of these and other domestic issues — that is, how important they are to voters in their ultimate decisions. Kerry has consistently done better with voters who cite the economy and health care as their top issues, as well as with those who choose Iraq. But Bush holds an overwhelming margin among voters who choose terrorism as their top issue. It remains to be seen whether domestic issues can trump terrorism in the voting booth.
There are still minds to be made up between now and the election. As noted, Bush's margin among men is tighter than it has been in previous tracking, and the two candidates are running evenly among women. Moveables — those who haven't definitely made up their minds — still make up 14 percent of likely voters, and currently split 44 percent to 41 percent for Bush, with 5 percent for Nader and 10 percent undecided. Likely voters in the so-called battleground states, where candidates are spending the bulk of their time and money, give the slight edge to Kerry in this poll, 50 percent to 45 percent.
This poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 3-5 among a random national sample of 1,805 adults, including 1,481 registered voters and 1,155 likely voters. The results have a three-point error margin for the likely voter sample. ABC News and The Washington Post are sharing data collection for this tracking poll, then independently applying their own models to arrive at likely voter estimates. Sampling, data collection and tabulation were done by TNS of Horsham, Pa.
See previous analyses in our Poll Vault.