The election remains an attention-grabber in a way the last was not. Two- thirds of registered voters call it one of the most important elections of their lifetimes. Forty-eight percent are following it "very closely," compared with 27 percent at this point in 2000. And 77 percent say they plan to watch the first debate Thursday.
Moving voters is often difficult, though, and debates historically have tended to reinforce perceptions rather than change them (partisans typically say their guy won). Movement may be especially tough in this contest; just 11 percent of likely voters say they might change their minds, and even fewer, a bare 3 percent, say there's a good chance of it.
Kerry's favorability rating, the most basic measure of a public figure's popularity, underscores his challenge: Just 37 percent of registered voters view him favorably, 42 percent unfavorably — more unfavorable than favorable, and essentially unmoved since earlier his month. Bush's rating, by contrast, is 52 percent to 38 percent favorable.
Enthusiasm tells a similar tale: Sixty-one percent of Bush's supporters are "very enthusiastic" about his candidacy — potentially an important factor in turnout — while just 39 percent of Kerry's supporters are very enthusiastic about his. These views, too, are essentially unchanged in the last three weeks of campaigning.
Kerry's problems include weakness among women, traditionally a stronger Democratic support group. In 2000 Al Gore won women by 11 points; now Bush and Kerry are about even among women, 49 percent to 48 percent. (Bush leads by 11 points among men, precisely the same as his margin among men in 2000.)
The reason, however, is broader than the simple notion of "security moms," the latest group du jour in election handicapping. Women are not significantly (+4 points) more apt than men to cite terrorism as the most important issue in their vote. And Kerry's problems among women are not limited to terrorism; they reach across issues and attributes.
For example, while Kerry trails Bush among women in trust to handle terrorism, 51 percent to 39 percent, he also lacks any edge in trust to handle Iraq, the economy or relations with other countries. In personal attributes, women by a 19-point margin say Bush is the stronger leader and has taken a clearer stand on the issues, and by 13 points women say he has the more appealing personality. Finally, women only divide evenly, 39 percent to 39 percent, in their favorable-unfavorable view of Kerry; for Bush it's 49 percent to 40 percent favorable.
Kerry does better with unmarried than with married women, and worse on some issues with "moms" (married women with children at home) than with those without kids at home. Demographics are the driver. Moms — early middle-aged, better educated — are more likely to be Republicans. Unmarried women include more minorities; married non-moms are older; both these have more Democrats in their ranks.
And if Kerry has a problem with women, he also has — more traditionally for a Democrat — difficulties with men. Men by a whopping 43-point margin, for example, say Bush has taken a clearer stand on the issues, and by 33 points call him the stronger leader.