Election Day turnout is also key for Kerry because Bush has a slight edge among people who've already voted. Fifteen percent of "likely" voters in fact say they've already cast their ballots, dividing 53 percent to 45 percent Bush-Kerry. That compares with a dead-even 48 percent to 48 percent race among the rest.
As noted in previous reports, early voters are twice as likely to be retirement age, and they include a disproportionate number of Westerners and slightly more Republicans.
The contest is not just close, it's rich with compelling and competing issues that sharply divide the electorate. The campaign ends with an evenly matched triad of most-important issues: Twenty-two percent of likely voters say it's the war in Iraq, 21 percent the economy and 20 percent terrorism.
Despite his best effort, Bush has been unable to keep terrorism higher on the list; it peaked at 28 percent in early September, after his convention. But neither could Kerry keep the economy paramount; it peaked as the top concern at 31 percent in late August.
These priorities matter: Bush clearly would benefit if terrorism were as high in importance today as it was in early September; among those who call it the most important issue, 90 percent support him. And Kerry would gain if the economy or Iraq were higher; he wins about two-thirds of likely voters who cite either of those as their top issue.
Kerry also has sizable leads among voters who say health care or education matters most to them. But another group -- those who cite some other main concern -- has grown through the fall campaign, from 9 percent of likely voters to 21 percent today. And these "other issue" voters favor Bush by nearly 2-1, 62 percent to 33 percent.
While they cite a range of concerns, many "other issue" voters mention the candidates' personal attributes, or a religious or moral issue. Compared with other likely voters, they're 15 points more apt to be conservatives, nine points more apt to be Republicans and seven points more apt to be evangelical white Protestants, all core Bush groups.
Finally on the issues, among all likely voters -- not just those who cite a single top issue -- Bush leads in trust to handle terrorism by 52 percent to 40 percent; that's tightened from a peak 59 percent to 34 percent Bush advantage in early September. Bush also leads by 50 percent to 41 percent among all likely voters in trust to handle the situation in Iraq, while on the economy it's a closer division; 48 percent prefer Kerry, 45 percent Bush.
Trust to Handle Issues
The gender gap is back, but it's not quite as broad as it was in 2000. Men favor Bush by 10 points, 53 percent to 43 percent, while women favor Kerry by seven points, 52 percent to 45 percent. In 2000, it was Bush +11 among men, Gore +11 among women.
One difference this year is greater interplay with marriage, apparently linked to higher concern about terrorism among married couples. Twenty-three percent of marrieds, men and women alike, cite terrorism as the No. 1 issue in their vote; that slips to 15 percent among singles.