Tonight's debate serves as an opportunity for Kerry to make his case on domestic issues before a broad audience, to elevate their importance to a level that contests with concerns about terrorism, and perhaps to challenge Bush further on Iraq. Bush's opportunity is to recover from his loss of the first debate, to make his best case on the economy, and to hammer home his core issue — security.
Interest is huge — 53 percent of registered voters are following the presidential election very closely, compared with 30 percent at this time in 2000. And 76 percent of registered voters say they plan to watch the debate tonight. (It'll compete, however, with the Yankees-Twins game — and the fact that it's a Friday night.)
Today's monthly jobs report, the last before the election, will be a likely topic of the debate. It reported modest growth in employment in September, weaker than forecasters had predicted.
At the same time, public views of the economy are based on a range of factors. Consumer confidence overall is very near its 18-year average in the weekly ABC News/Money magazine poll. And, in tracking poll results earlier this week, as many likely voters said their finances had improved under Bush as said they'd gotten worse off — 30 percent each, with the rest saying they were doing the same.
The differences from some previous election years are striking. In 2000 there was broad agreement that the economy was in good shape; in 1992, broad agreement that it was in the tank. Today there's more room for argument — and that opens the door for bigger-than-usual partisan differences in economic assessments. While 52 percent of Democrats say they've gotten worse off financially under Bush, that falls to 29 percent of independents, and 10 percent of Republicans.
Importance of the economy as an issue has declined from its peak. In an Aug. 29 ABC News/Washington Post poll, just before the Republican convention, 31 percent called it the most important issue in their vote, compared with 23 percent today.
Looking at issue priorities among each candidates' backers also provides a telling assessment of their support profiles. Among Bush voters, 43 percent say terrorism is the No. 1 issue in their vote; among Kerry supporters, it's 4 percent. No. 1 for Kerry supporters are the economy and Iraq; for Bush voters both are much lower in importance.
Because incumbent elections start with an assessment of the incumbent's performance, another important number for Bush is his re-elect reading — the number of people who say he "deserves a second term." Barely more than half, 51 percent of likely voters, say he does — slipping to just under half of independents, 47 percent (and 16 percent of Democrats).
That compares with a 54 percent to 43 percent division on this question among likely voters just after the Republican convention. Bush clearly would like to improve his re-elect number particularly among independents, the key swing voters in any presidential election.
There are some differences among groups on the issues. Men are 12 points more likely than women to cite terrorism as the most important issue in their vote, while women are 10 points more apt to say it's Iraq.
Most Important Issue
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