Personal views of the candidates also inform vote choices, and these show substantial stability. Bush leads Kerry by 22 points as the stronger leader, by 18 points as having taken clearer stands on the issues and by nine points as more honest and trustworthy -- the most important attribute of the lot. They remain about even in another, empathy.
One of these does show considerable progress for Kerry: Before the first debate he trailed by 33 points on taking clear stands on the issues, 60 percent-27 percent. He stills trails by a wide margin, but has narrowed the gap.
As noted in Sunday's tracking poll analysis, 56 percent of likely voters expect Bush to win, despite a dead heat in the horse race most of last week. Today's poll finds that Bush also commands greater enthusiasm: Fifty-nine percent of his supporters are "very enthusiastic" about his candidacy, compared with 45 percent of Kerry's.
Enthusiasm for Kerry had advanced to 50 percent after his strong showing in the first debate -- but it's slipped back. Bush lost strong enthusiasm after the first debate, but his appears to have stabilized at a higher level than Kerry's. Enthusiasm can be a factor in voter turnout, critical in a close race.
Strong Entusiasm for Candidates Among Likely Voters, Bush/Kerry Supporters
At the same time. Bush's criticisms of Kerry as too liberal show some continued traction. Forty-five percent of likely voters describe Kerry as too liberal, compared with 37 percent who see Bush as too conservative. The two ran about evenly on this question in July, but Bush opened an 11-point lead on it after his convention, and he's held onto it.
A key reason for the difference is that there are far more Republicans who call Kerry too liberal -- 82 percent -- than there are Democrats who call Bush too conservative, 57 percent. The reason is the ideological split within parties: Among likely voters, 60 percent of Republicans are conservatives, while just 27 percent of Democrats are liberals. Indeed across all likely voters, conservatives outnumber liberals by 2-1.
Ideology of the Candidates
Bush's personal favorability rating, the most basic measure of a public figure's popularity, has moved back to 52 percent-42 percent (favorable-unfavorable) after a slightly tighter reading last week. Kerry's favorability score, 46 percent, hasn't cracked the 50 percent line since just after his convention. Forty-three percent see him unfavorably.
As noted, Kerry is doing better among independent voters, who divide by 52 percent-44 percent, Kerry-Bush, in this poll. But Kerry's advantage is not assured: As with all likely voters more broadly, among independents who support Bush, 48 percent are very enthusiastic about him, while among those who support Kerry, enthusiasm is lower, 35 percent.
White Catholics, the other chief swing voter group, divide by 50 percent-47 percent, Bush-Kerry. Bush is doing better among white Catholics than among independents in the ideology war: Thirty-four percent of white Catholics say Bush is too conservative, while more, 45 percent, say Kerry's too liberal.