George W. Bush and John Kerry are running all but even in voter preferences in the last days of the 2004 election, a sharply divided contest that three-quarters of likely voters call one of the most important of their lifetimes.
The race stands at 49 percent-48 percent Bush-Kerry in the latest ABC News tracking poll, based on interviews Wednesday through Saturday, with Ralph Nader's support slipping under one half of 1 percent.
It's been consistently tight, with Bush's support between 48 percent and 51 percent and Kerry's from 45 percent to 49 percent since ABC's first tracking report Oct. 3. Bush has held a numerical advantage much more often than Kerry, but rarely a statistically significant one.
Expectations remain on the president's side: Fifty-three percent of likely voters expect him to win, while considerably fewer, 33 percent, expect Kerry to win (the rest won't hazard a guess). That's about the same as it was last week, but lower than it was just after the Republican convention, when 64 percent expected Bush to win.
The effect of expectations is hard to estimate: If it signals enthusiasm on Bush's side it could help him with turnout; but if it's complacency (hard to fathom) it could hurt. It's notable, though, that one in five of Kerry's own supporters expect a Bush victory.
The stakes could hardly be higher: Eighty-six percent of likely voters call this election "especially important," 19 points higher than in a poll of registered voters just before the 2000 election, and 26 points higher than in 1996. Moreover, 75 percent this year go so far as to call it one of the single most important elections of their lifetimes.
After fading last week, the traditional gender gap has reappeared: Bush leads by 10 points among men in this survey, Kerry by eight points among women. Kerry continues to lose married women (Al Gore split them with Bush in 2000), but more than makes up for it with 2-1 support among single women, a strong Democratic group.
Similarly, Bush is losing single men to Kerry (Gore and Bush split single men in 2000), but Bush comes back very strongly with married men, a usual GOP stronghold.
One of the major wildcards is young voters: In 2000, a third of 18- to 29-year-olds said it was their first time voting in a presidential election. Now nearly half say so. And in 2000 young voters split about evenly between Gore and Bush, while now they favor Kerry by a much wider margin. His campaign may well depend on their turnout.
There's one sign many young people will make it to the polls: In tracking results early this month, 78 percent of young likely voters either knew their polling place or said they vote absentee; today it's up to 92 percent.
Absentee or early voting more broadly continues to inch up; 14 percent of likely voters now say they've already cast their ballots, and that could be an understatement since it's a volunteered rather than a prompted response. Their preferences have narrowed to 50 percent-47 percent between Bush and Kerry, very near the contest overall. Early voters are older than others -- twice as likely to be retirement age -- and most prevalent in the West.
Issue preferences are holding steady, with mentions of terrorism unchanged despite the latest Osama bin Laden videotape. Nineteen percent of likely voters call terrorism the most important issue in their vote, and 88 percent of them support Bush.