With the potentially pivotal presidential debates approaching, two issues may cloud President Bush's advantage: A rise in public concern about the situation in Iraq — and a sense among most voters that he's too much of a risk-taker in his policy decisions.
A new ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that six in 10 registered voters now say the United States has gotten bogged down in Iraq, and 51 percent say the war there was not worth fighting — each up six points this month. Also, 55 percent call Bush "too willing to take risks," a possible line of Democratic attack.
But if those concerns harass Bush like a terrier, John Kerry is up against a bigger beast: More voters continue to dislike him than to like him personally, and most prefer Bush across a range of issues and attributes, from terrorism and Iraq to honesty and leadership.
The race is being driven as much by Bush's comparative advantage over Kerry as by Bush's standing in his own right. A tepid 52 percent of registered voters approve of Bush's job performance overall (critically, though, more than half), and fewer than half are satisfied with the nation's direction, or approve of his work on Iraq or the economy.
Yet despite the concerns on Iraq, for example, registered voters nonetheless trust Bush over Kerry to deal with the situation, 53 percent to 40 percent — by dint of the president's leadership and clarity. On the economy, similarly, while just 17 percent say most people have gotten better off financially under Bush, he still holds a slight lead in trust to handle it, 48 percent to 43 percent.
Bush leads broadly, by 54 percent to 37 percent, in trust to handle terrorism, his cornerstone issue. Another potential concern for him, though, is a five-point slip, to 59 percent, in the number of registered voters who say the country is safer now than it was before 9/11.
Still, as was the case in the last ABC News/Washington Post poll early this month, some of Bush's greatest advantages are personal: He leads Kerry in seven of eight candidate qualities, including by 26 points as the stronger leader. They're about even in the eighth, empathy.
Bush's relative strengths have enabled him to maintain the overall lead he took out of his nominating convention: Fifty-one percent of likely voters in this poll support Bush, 45 percent Kerry and 1 percent Ralph Nader, much like the 52-43-2 percent race on Sept. 8. It's nearly identical among all registered voters.
That result is not predictive — the race has been tied and it can be again. But these results present three prime worries for the Kerry camp. One is that, unlike Kerry, Bush has maintained his immediate post-convention gains (the candidate evaluations in this ABC/Post survey are little changed from those in the last). A second is Kerry's weak personal position, which sends him into the debates with a certain lack of good will. And the third is a very broad sense that Kerry hasn't enunciated a clear message; registered voters by 2-1 say Bush has taken clearer stands on the issues.
Together, these mean that while Bush's task Thursday night is to consolidate and reinforce, Kerry's, more critically, is both to explain his positions in a compelling way, and at the same time to create a more positive rapport with the voting public.
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.
A follow-up question in this poll sorts candidate Attributes in order of their importance in vote choices. A quarter of registered voters say honesty and trustworthiness is the No. 1 candidate quality in their choice, followed by leadership (18 percent). Making the country safer, shared values and empathy come next, about equally.
As noted, the notion of risk-taking is one the Democrats may try to use against Bush: Fifty-five percent of registered voters (men and women alike) say that in making policy decisions Bush is "too willing to take risks," as opposed to too cautious. (Thirty-five percent call Kerry too cautious.)
Even among Republicans, 35 percent say Bush is too willing to take risks; that rises to 56 percent of independents and 74 percent of Democrats. It's 70 percent among those who say Iraq is the No. 1 issue in their vote, and a still-significant 40 percent among those who care most about terrorism.
The economy, terrorism and Iraq remain the leading issues, followed by health care and education. When respondents were invited to name an unprompted No. 2 issue, no others were mentioned by more than 1 percent.
Bush holds his usual huge (more than 70-point) lead among voters who cite terrorism as the top issue in their vote. Similarly, among those who say the country is safer from terrorism, it's a 55-point Bush lead among likely voters. Kerry leads by 20+ points among those who cite the economy, Iraq or health care as their top issues.
In addition to his huge edge in perceptions that he's taken clearer stands in general, Bush has a specific edge in having plans on terrorism and Iraq alike. Sixty-two percent say he has a clear plan on terrorism; just 36 percent say Kerry does.
And while fewer, 53 percent, say Bush has been clear on Iraq, just 38 percent say Kerry has been so. The two are closer in the view they've been clear on the economy.
The economy has been and remains something of a wildcard in this election — neither bad enough to fuel strong anti-incumbent sentiment, nor good enough to work to incumbents' advantage. Economic risks to Bush include the price of oil; when it rises, consumer confidence usually falls.
Of the five trust-to-handle issues tested in this poll, Kerry competes best (running about evenly) with Bush in "creating jobs" (46 percent trust Kerry, 44 percent Bush). And 53 percent give a negative rating, "not so good" or "poor," to the economy's condition.
That economic rating, though, requires context. It was worse, 60 percent negative, last March, and worse still, 70 percent negative, a year ago. Moreover it was near its all-time worst, 90 percent negative, at this time in 1992, when Bush's father was headed for defeat at the hands of economic discontent.
Bush has an advantage among one true swing voter group, white Catholics; they favor him by 17 points, 56 percent to 39 percent among likely voters (it was about the same earlier this month). He and Kerry are about even in the other quintessential swing group, independents, at 49 percent to 46 percent.
Both are strong in their bases — for example, Bush has 71 percent support from evangelical white Protestants, while Kerry has 74 percent support from minorities. But Bush is doing better at poaching: He's winning support from 12 percent of Democrats, while Kerry's winning fewer Republicans, four percent.
Among other groups to watch, Kerry's winning 53 percent support from people in union households (Gore won 59 percent of union-household votes in 2000), while military veterans, 16 percent of likely voters, are dividing 64 percent to 35 percent for Bush.
The sharp differences among these groups underscore the importance of turnout.
In an indication of the level of effort being expended by both campaigns, 15 percent of registered voters say they've personally been contacted by a representative of the Bush campaign asking for their vote. About the same number, 14 percent, have been contacted by Kerry's campaign. In the 13 most closely contested states, however, Bush has an advantage: Twenty-seven percent say they've been contacted by Bush's campaign, compared with 15 percent who've been contacted by Kerry's.
A final note, and a final worry for Kerry, is political party identification. It's shifted lately, which is not surprising in an election; moving political allegiance is what campaigns are all about. Republicans held an advantage in party allegiance among likely voters in the last ABC/Post poll, taken after Bush's convention: 38 percent to 32 percent, with 26 percent independents. It's a closer 35-36-24 percent in this poll, yet Bush still leads.
This ABC News/"Washington Post" poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 23-26 among a random national sample of 1,204 adults, including 969 registered voters and 810 likely voters. The results have a three-point error margin for registered voters, 3.5 points for likely voters. Sampling, data collection and tabulation was conducted by TNS of Horsham, Pa.
See previous analyses in our Poll Vault.