Poll: Advantage Bush as Election Nears

The 2004 campaign enters its decisive phase with the advantage to President Bush, who has reasserted his personal and professional credentials, effectively driven up John Kerry's negatives and broken through to a lead in likely voters' preferences.

According to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, registered voters by a 27-point margin now say Bush has taken a clearer stand than Kerry on the issues, by 27 points call Bush the stronger leader and by 19 points say he would make the country safer. Bush also has a 22-point advantage in trust to handle terrorism, a 16-point lead on Iraq and perhaps a slight edge even on the lukewarm economy.

These and other ratings have either reversed or eroded Kerry's position. After the Democratic convention Kerry had a six-point lead as more honest; now it's Bush +13. Kerry had a 13-point lead on a "vision for the future"; now it's Bush +9. Kerry had a 14-point lead on understanding people's problems; now they're essentially even (Bush +1).

Moving these underlying views has enabled Bush to break out of the virtual dead heat that's defined the contest: Among likely voters in this ABC News/Washington Post survey, Bush has 52 percent support, Kerry 43 percent, Ralph Nader 2 percent. It's Bush's first lead beyond the margin of sampling error in any ABC/Post poll since Kerry seized his party's nomination in March. The race is 50-44-2 percent among all registered voters.

The contest is far from over: This poll follows Bush's convention, a week in which he held center stage in public attention, and his convention "bounce" — an insignificant +5 points among registered voters — is an anemic one, on par with Kerry's +8 and below the average, +14, in polls since 1968. One difference is that Kerry left his convention in a dead heat among likely voters, while Bush leaves his with a lead.

But more important than the horse race at this stage are the attitudes that inform it. Sixty-three percent of Bush's supporters now say they're "very enthusiastic" about him, a new high for Bush in this important measure of motivation. Kerry's support, after dropping in advance of the Republican convention, is flat, at 39 percent very enthusiastic. And while 84 percent of Bush's supporters are affirmatively "for" him, that's true of just 41 percent of Kerry's; more of Kerry's supporters, 55 percent, are chiefly "against" Bush.

Fave

Probably worst for Kerry, his "favorable" rating has gone negative, meaning that more registered voters now express an unfavorable than a favorable opinion of him, 42 to 36 percent. Kerry's favorable rating — the most basic measure of a public figure's popularity — has dropped by 15 points since his convention.

Bush's favorability rating has held essentially steady, and his job approval rating is now 52 percent among all Americans and registered voters alike — the first time it's edged above 50 percent among the general population in ABC/Post polls since April. The number who are dissatisfied with the nation's direction, similarly, has inched below 50 percent.

Still, the stability in Bush's job approval and favorability ratings, compared with the sizable drop in Kerry's favorability, shows that Bush has not gained ground as much as Kerry has lost it. That still works to Bush's advantage, since election politics is comparative.

Bush has forged some movement in his favor; 32 percent now call him "too conservative," down six points since June. More, 42 percent, call Kerry "too liberal" — and that's up six points since June.

Change and Challenge

The fact that underlying views have changed means they can change again. After the Democratic convention there were eight points more Democrats than Republicans among likely voters; today, there are six points more Republicans than Democrats. Party allegiance has been +3 or +4 Democratic in exit polls since 1988; Kerry would gain ground by moving the alignment back to its Election Day norm. But shifting party allegiance is not his only problem: He's losing 12 percent of Democrats to Bush, twice Bush's loss of Republicans to Kerry.

Attention to the race remains very high; 45 percent of registered voters are following it "very closely," compared with 26 percent at this time in 2000. And more of them remain more firmly committed earlier than usual, which makes it difficult for the candidates to move voter preferences.

The number of registered voters who say they may change their minds has dropped from 26 percent in June to 14 percent now; it was twice as high, 31 percent, at this time in 2000. Fewer, just six percent, say there's a "good chance" they may change their minds. And in another difficult sign for Kerry, he leads among moveables — i.e., those who might move.

One more result underscores Kerry's challenges: He's far more competitive against Bush on empathy (i.e., understanding people's problems) than on strong leadership. But given continued concerns about the threat of terrorism, the public by nearly 2-1, 57-30 percent, says that of the two, strong leadership is the more important quality in a president.

People who say empathy is more important favor Kerry by more than 40 points. But those who say strong leadership is more important favor Bush by 35 points — and there are many more of them.

There also are new perceptions Kerry may need to address: By a 16-point margin, more Americans say Bush is running a good campaign than say he is. And by a huge 63-26 percent margin, most say they expect Bush to win. Even among Kerry supporters, 32 percent expect Bush to prevail. Again, though, that is not a sure bet by any means: In Gallup polls since 1936, there have been three instances in which the ultimate winner did not lead in the first post-Labor Day poll (Truman, Kennedy and Reagan).

Issues

After the focus on security at the Republican convention, terrorism has moved up to parity with the economy as the most important issue in the election — 27 percent say it's the economy, 25 percent terrorism, 18 percent Iraq and 13 percent health care, with others in single digits. Just before last week's convention the economy was alone as the top mention.

It should be noted, moreover, that nearly six in 10 Americans believe the Iraq war is part of the war on terrorism. Add them to the "terrorism" tally and it surpasses the economy as the top issue in the election.

Vote preferences follow some of these issue priorities. Among those who say terrorism is the No. 1 issue, Bush has an 80-point lead. Among those who say it's Iraq, Kerry leads by 34 points; and his lead is similar among those who say it's the economy. The nation's response to terrorism continues to be the essential wellspring of Bush's support.

More broadly, among all registered voters, Bush now has a clear lead in trust to handle five of the 10 specific issues tested in this poll, and is slightly ahead in two others. Kerry has a slight lead in one, and they're about even in two others.

On some of these issues the trend toward Bush has been linear in the last two ABC/Post polls. For example, trust to handle Iraq has gone from Kerry +2 to Bush +8 to Bush +16; trust to handle taxes has gone from Kerry +6 to Bush +2 to Bush +10.

Other ratings have held steady in this poll after improving for Bush just before his convention. For instance, he leads Kerry by 13 points, 53-40 percent, as best qualified to be commander-in-chief, very similar to last week's reading. After the Democratic convention, Kerry led by eight points on this question.

Economy

The economy is still a potential threat to Bush; its ratings, while not bad enough to be lemons, are not good enough to be lemonade. Forty-two percent say most people in the country have gotten worse off financially since Bush took office, and they support Kerry by 79-12 percent. But Bush wins 73 and 86 percent support, respectively, from those who say most people are doing as well as before, and those who say they're doing better.

Moreover, the 42 percent who say most people are worse off is down from a recent high of 52 percent at this time last year. And it was higher still, 61 percent, in August 1992, with Bush's father headed for defeat. In another measure, the ABC News/Money magazine Consumer Comfort Index is now -7 on its scale of +100 to -100; that's about the same as its 18-year average, -9, and well up from its level at this time in 1992, -43.

Attributes

As important as issues are evaluations of personal characteristics, and Bush leads in seven of eight personal attributes tested in this poll. Again some have moved toward him in linear fashion; having a "vision for the future," for example, has progressed from Kerry +13 to Kerry +3 to Bush +9.

The huge Bush advantages on taking a "clear stand on the issues" and having an "appealing personality," both newly asked in this poll, are among the more striking results, as are Bush's continued leads on strong leadership and "making the country safer and more secure," a central focus of his convention.

Groups

Some of the changes on issues and attributes have been disproportionately large in some specific groups. Bush has gained ground particularly among men, among veterans, among independents and in some cases among white Catholic voters. The latter two are the quintessential swing voters in American politics.

The change among veterans may stem not from Kerry's war record — the "swift boat" controversy — but instead from his anti-war record. Veterans by a 22-point margin say they're less likely to support Kerry because of it.

War Record

Indeed while the "swift boat" controversy over Kerry's war medals clearly put him off stride, his military record continues to be a net positive — 23 percent say they're more likely to support him because of it, compared with 13 percent less likely. It's closer — more of a wash — among veterans.

Bush's record of service in the National Guard, by contrast, is more of a negative: Just seven percent are more likely to support him because of it, 18 percent less likely. It remains to be seen if the resurgence of this issue hurts Bush, but as a rule it's harder to damage a sitting president with a strong personal image and current record than to define a lesser-known newcomer on the national political scene.

There's also the issue of Kerry's anti-war efforts after leaving the military in 1969. Twenty percent say they're more likely to support him because of his public opposition to the Vietnam war, but 28 percent are less likely. And more generally a 49-37 percent plurality disapproves of Kerry's opposition to the war.

All these views are infused with partisanship; for example, hardly any Republicans say they're less likely to support Bush because of his service (two percent). But it is more of a negative than a positive for him in the center — net 11 points negative, for example, among independents. However, as noted, a bigger hot button for a significant group is Kerry's war opposition: Among veterans, 39 percent say they're less likely to support him because of it, compared with 17 percent more likely.

War and Terrorism

On the war in Iraq, 51 percent in this poll say it was worth fighting, over half (albeit barely) for the first time since April. Fifty-seven percent think the war has contributed to long-term U.S. security. And while 54 percent think the United States has gotten bogged down in Iraq, that's down from 65 percent in May.

As noted above, Bush has majority support on another point — 58 percent think the war in Iraq is part of the war on terrorism.

Fifty-five percent think the United States is winning the war on terrorism, and 52 percent express at least some confidence in the government's ability to prevent further attacks. But 73 percent are worried about another attack, and a third are worried that they personally could be a victim of terrorism.

Perhaps most fundamentally, though, just days before the third anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, 64 percent of registered voters say the country is safer than it was before that attack. And Bush leads Kerry by more than 40 points in this group, 69 to 26 percent.

Methodology

This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 6-8 among a random national sample of 1,202 adults, including 952 registered voters. The results have a three-point error margin for registered voters, 3.5 points for likely voters, who account for 57 percent of all respondents. Sampling, data collection and tabulation were done by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

See previous analyses in our Poll Vault.

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