Poll: Kerry Gaining but Bush Still in Lead

Sen. John Kerry's personal popularity forged into positive territory after the first presidential debate, according to a new ABC News poll. Numbers show that enthusiasm for his candidacy rose and concerns about Iraq — the debate's chief focus — advanced as an election issue.

Vote preferences are essentially unchanged, with President Bush maintaining a lead in this first ABC News tracking poll of the 2004 election — in the horse race, and on top issues and attributes alike. But enthusiasm for Bush lost ground, and Kerry, by improving his basic acceptability, clearly has revived what recently was a struggling effort.

Post-debate evaluations went Kerry's way: Likely voters by more than a 2-1 margin, 52 percent to 23 percent, say he won the debate, compared with a more modest 45 percent to 36 percent win among debate watchers in an ABC News poll Thursday night.

Some views followed. Forty-seven percent now express a favorable opinion of Kerry, up eight points from before the debate. For the first time since the Republican convention, more voters see him favorably than unfavorably, a critical tipping point.

Bush's favorability rating was unchanged, at 53 percent. But in another measure, the number of "very enthusiastic" Bush supporters lost eight points, to 57 percent, while high-level enthusiasm for Kerry gained eight points, to 50 percent.

Still, Bush continues to lead, not only in favorability and enthusiasm but in the horse race overall: Fifty-one percent of likely voters in this poll support Bush, 46 percent Kerry and 1 percent Ralph Nader — essentially the same as before the debate. Among the broader group of all registered voters, it's 50 percent to 45 percent to 2 percent.

Underlying views matter more than the horse race at this stage; they're the foundation on which ultimate vote choices are built. And not all have turned in Kerry's direction by any means: Bush still leads him by substantial margins in trust to handle terrorism and Iraq, as well as in personal attributes including strong leadership, honesty and trustworthiness, making the country safer and qualifications to serve as commander in chief.

And Bush has a 53 percent job approval rating among likely voters, unchanged from last week and still over the halfway mark.

Enthusiasm

On enthusiasm, Kerry's gains came mainly among men who support him (up 14 points) and among those who say Iraq is their top issue. Bush's decline in enthusiasm is more even across groups.

Kerry and John Edwards have two chances this week to turn their advance into votes, and Bush and Dick Cheney to stop them: At the vice presidential debate Tuesday night and the second presidential debate Friday. With the V.P. debate next, Edwards has a five-point gain in favorability on Kerry's coattails in this poll. And while Cheney's net favorable-to-unfavorable rating is about even, 44 percent to 43 percent, Edwards' is more positive, 45 percent to 30 percent. Since he has had much less time on the national stage, more are undecided about him.

Iraq

While Bush leads by 52 percent to 41 percent in trust to handle the situation in Iraq — essentially unchanged from before the debate — the issue has gained ground in importance, and it does carry hazards for him. Twenty-six percent now cite Iraq as the most important issue in their vote, up six points from last week.

Likely voters divide about evenly on whether the war was worth fighting. On Bush's side of the argument, six in 10 Americans say the war in Iraq is part of the war on terrorism, and 53 percent say it's improved long-term U.S. security. On Kerry's side, 58 percent say the United States has gotten bogged down there.

In another sign of fallout from the debate, the number of likely voters who say Bush doesn't have a clear plan on what to do in Iraq has gained six points, to 48 percent; and the number who say Kerry does have a clear plan advanced slightly. Clarity remains a problem for Kerry — another issue on which Bush still leads, albeit by less of a margin.

Views on Iraq strongly inform vote choices. Bush wins 87 percent support from those who say the war was worth fighting; Kerry wins 80 percent of those who say it was not. Similarly, Bush wins 75 percent support from those who accept his argument that the war in Iraq is part of the war on terrorism. Kerry wins 82 percent of those who reject it.

Issues

Terrorism held steady as a top voting issue, cited by 24 percent in this poll, while the economy slipped six points to 21 percent. Kerry still wins voters who pick Iraq as the top issue in their vote, but by less of a margin than last week. He broadly wins among those who pick the economy; Bush, even more strongly, among those who pick terrorism.

The economy, which had been at the top of the list for much of the summer and fall, remains the top issue for moveable voters, the 14 percent of likely voters who say they haven't definitely made up their minds. The economy also tops the list, and Iraq slips, in the so-called battleground states where the campaigns are spending most of their time.

Terrorism, by another measure, is a larger issue overall. People who say Iraq is the top issue, but also say Iraq is part of the war on terrorism, could be regarded as terrorism voters. Including them boosts terrorism easily to the top issue nationally, at 37 percent.

Trust

The nation's response to terrorism continues to be Bush's core issue, and likely voters trust him over Kerry to handle it by 54 percent to 38 percent, essentially the same as last week. Voters by an 18-point margin also say Bush has a clear plan for handling terrorism, though that represents a five-point rise in the number who say he does not.

Kerry remains weaker in this gauge; likely voters by 52 percent to 40 percent say he lacks a clear plan on terrorism. That's about the same as his rating for having a clear plan on Iraq.

There is a third issue tested in this poll in which the candidates are closer in trust: A 48 percent to 46 percent Bush-Kerry division in trust to handle relations with other countries, another focus of last week's debate. That's similar to last week's 49 percent to 43 percent split.

Attributes

On personal attributes, similarly, this survey finds no significant change. Bush is rated as a stronger leader by 58 percent to 37 percent, as more honest by 50 percent to 39 percent, as making the country safer and more secure by 52 percent to 40 percent and as better qualified to be commander in chief by 52 percent to 43 percent.

On one other attribute, understanding the problems of people like you, the two are about even: Forty-five percent of likely voters pick Kerry, 44 percent Bush. That is very slightly up (four points) for Kerry from last week.

Groups

Kerry's gains in favorability, his most significant advance, include some key groups. He gained 23 points in favorability among moveable voters (to 51 percent, up from 28 percent); and 16 points among independents, the quintessential swing voters.

Kerry gained 13 points in favorability among men, and strengthened his position among unmarried women; a core Democratic group, they now have a more than 2-1 favorable opinion of him. Still, his problems with married women persist: Their opinions are virtually unchanged after the debate and remain more negative than positive.

Veterans, another voter group attracting keen interest this year, were modestly affected by Kerry's performance in the debate, but also still give him a net unfavorable rating. White Catholics, a traditional swing voter group, divide evenly on Kerry's basic popularity; they were net negative last week.

Vote preferences are similar to what they've been: Roughly a dead heat among women, and a 12-point Bush lead among men. (Women are one group where Kerry is looking to improve; Al Gore won them by 11 points in 2000.) And Bush is drawing 12 percent of Democrats to his side, while Kerry attracts 7 percent of Republicans. Independents — again, the truest of swing voters — divide 47 percent to 47 percent, with 2 percent for Nader.

Turnout

What's ultimately essential is who votes, and current polling suggest higher-than-usual turnout. Interest is high, and registration drives across the country may be having an effect. Compared to an ABC News/Washington Post poll at this time in 2000, Americans are six points more likely to say they're registered to vote; and registered voters are six points more likely to say they're certain to vote, and 18 points more likely to be following the election very closely.

While registration, interest and voting intention bear watching, horse-race results in this poll are essentially the same with and without new or occasional voters in the sample.

Methodology

This poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 1-3 among a random national sample of 1,807 adults, including 1,470 registered voters and 1,169 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.

Click here for PDF version with full questionnaire and results.

See previous analyses in our Poll Vault.

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