Poll: Candidates Neck and Neck

The 2004 campaign moves into its last two weeks with a close race, but one in which President Bush holds the advantage in a range of underlying measurements.

Most likely voters, 53 percent, approve of Bush's job performance overall. Most, 52 percent, have a favorable opinion of him personally. His supporters are more enthusiastic than John Kerry's. Bush easily leads in three of four personal attributes -- leadership, clarity and honesty. He's stronger on terrorism, Iraq and -- a recent gain -- taxes. And, echoing Bush's latest line of attack, more likely voters see Kerry as too liberal than see Bush as too conservative.

Yet for all these the race between them remains close: Bush has 50 percent support among likely voters, Kerry 47 percent and Ralph Nader 1 percent in the latest ABC News tracking poll, based on interviews Thursday through Sunday.

Sampling, data collection and tabulation for this poll were done by TNS.

One reason Kerry remains competitive is that he's doing better than Bush among independents, a crucial swing voter group. Another is the fact that terrorism, Bush's keystone issue, has slipped on the priority list as the candidates have focused on domestic matters. Just before the first debate, 24 percent of likely voters said terrorism was the most important issue in their vote; today it's 19 percent (and among independents, 17 percent).


Most Important Issues
IssueNow 9/26
Economy/Jobs26% 27
Iraq26 20
Terrorism19 24
Health Care9 11
Education5 5

It matters because concerns about terrorism so strongly fuel Bush's candidacy. Among people who say it's their top issue, nine in 10 support him. The more of them there are, the better he does. And the more who cite other top issues as most important in their vote -- the economy, Iraq, health care or education -- the better for Kerry.

Trust

Among all likely voters, Bush leads by 20 points in trust to handle terrorism, 56 percent-36 percent, and by 11 points in trust to handle the situation in Iraq, 52 percent-41 percent. That's essentially the same as a week ago, and in turn about the same as two weeks ago.

Bush also leads Kerry by eight points, 50 percent-42 percent, in trust to handle taxes, an issue on which Bush has been on the attack. It may be having an effect: Preferences on this issue ran a slightly closer 48 percent-46 percent between Bush and Kerry the week before last.

Kerry, for his part, leads by six points, 48 percent-42 percent, in trust to handle health care; that's backed off very slightly from a 51 percent-38 percent Kerry lead last week. The two are closer on creating jobs, and in trust to handle education and the economy.

These preferences cross-pollinate with vote preference. As noted, likely voters who cite terrorism as their top issue favor Bush by a huge margin. Those who cite the economy as their top issue, by contrast, favor Kerry by 37 points; Iraq, Kerry +23; health care, Kerry +23; and education, Kerry +15. Bush leads, by 39 points, among the 13 percent who cite some other issue.


Trust to Handle the Issues
IssueBush Kerry
Terrorism56% 36
Iraq52 41
Taxes50 42
Education46 45
The Economy46 47
Creating Jobs43 47
Health Care42 48

Attributes

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.

Enthusiasm

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
DateBush Kerry
7/2554% 42
8/15759
8/2961 43
9/865 43
9/2665 42
10/357 50
10/1759 45

Ideology

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 Kerry
Too Liberal9% 45
Too Conservative37 6
About Right50 44

Faves

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.

Groups

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.

Bush makes up for his shortfall among independents by again poaching more Democrats (15 percent) than Kerry wins Republicans (7 percent); Kerry had battled him to parity on this last week, but the disparity in Bush's favor has emerged again. Democrats account for 36 percent of likely voters in this poll, Republicans for 34 percent.

Among other groups, older voters -- hotly contested because of their high turnout -- divide absolutely evenly, 47 percent-47 percent. Young voters, under 30, a subject of great speculation as to turnout, divide fairly similarly (given sampling tolerances), 50 percent-46 percent, Kerry-Bush.

Bush leads by 11 points among men (the same as his margin four years ago); Kerry by five points among women (Al Gore won them by 11 points in 2000). There is a very sharp division between married women (+8 points for Bush, 53 percent-45 percent) and single women; a core Democratic group, they favor Kerry by 60 percent-36 percent.

Methodology

This poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 14-17 among a random national sample of 2,402 adults, including 2,130 registered voters and 1,544 likely voters. The results have a 2.5-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 by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

Click here for PDF version with full questionnaire and results.

See previous analyses in our Poll Vault.

See previous analyses in our Poll Vault.

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