Poll: 'Wrong Track' Sentiment Boosts Kerry

Skepticism about the nation's direction is boosting John Kerry's campaign for president: Fifty-five percent of likely voters say the country is on the wrong track, and their discontent is fueling Kerry to an even race against President Bush.

Overall, 49 percent of likely voters now support Kerry, 48 percent Bush, 1 percent Ralph Nader. Given polling tolerances that's essentially a tie, but it is the first time since Aug. 1 that Kerry's held a numerical advantage, however slight, in ABC News polls.

A weekend advance did it: Saturday and Sunday were two of Kerry's three best individual days since this daily tracking poll began Oct. 1. Today's results are based on Thursday-Sunday interviews.

Direction

Discontent is the necessary element in removing an incumbent from office, and Kerry clearly has harnessed much of it: Among likely voters who say the country's on the wrong track, 84 percent support him.

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

At the same time, 12 percent of discontented voters are so far sticking with Bush -- as are, more naturally, 94 percent of those who say the nation's headed in the right direction. A fundamental question for this election is whether discontent is high enough -- and goes strongly enough to the challenger -- for the incumbent to lose.

Before the 1992 election it was clearer: Amid much broader economic discomfort, 76 percent of registered voters said the nation was on the wrong track, and Bush's father was voted out. But shortly before the 1996 election 55 percent said the country was on the wrong track, the same as now, and Bill Clinton nonetheless cruised to re-election. The difference from '96 is that the discontent now cuts more strongly to vote choices.

Issues

The right direction/wrong track results also underscore the extent to which Bush's prospects rest on the issue of terrorism. Among likely voters who say terrorism is the top issue in their vote, 80 percent say the country is headed in the right direction -- and 87 percent support Bush for re-election.

By contrast, among those who cite the economy, Iraq, health care or education as their top issue, two-thirds or more say the country is headed in the wrong direction -- and about as many support Kerry.

In short, every voter who shows up at the polls next week with terrorism foremost in his or her mind is very likely to be a Bush supporter, while those focused on another of the top issues -- the economy, Iraq, health care or education -- are likelier by 2-1 to support Kerry than Bush. The campaigns' closing messages can be expected to reflect that reality.

Bush, in particular, may seek to raise the profile of terrorism as an issue, given slippage in this concern: The number of "terrorism voters" has fallen from a peak of 28 percent of likely voters the week after his convention to 20 percent today, and he needs them.


Most Important Issues
Now 9/8
Economy24% 25
Iraq21 20
Terrorism20 28
Health Care9 11
Education5 6
Other199

Others

But life isn't entirely this simple: There's also a sizable "other" group -- people who cite something other than these five top items as the most important issue in their vote. And the number of "other issue" voters has doubled since Labor Day, from 9 percent after the Republican convention to 19 percent today.

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