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).
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.