The ice in the river is thick, but the currents have moved in President Bush's direction.
As his nominating convention kicks off, an ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Bush has erased most of John Kerry's gains on issues and attributes alike, retaking a sizable lead in trust to handle terrorism, moving ahead on Iraq and battling the Democratic presidential nominee to parity on the economy — the three top issues of the 2004 campaign.
Bush also has reclaimed an advantage in being seen as more honest and trustworthy, bolstered his rating for strong leadership and moved to a 10-point lead as better qualified to serve as commander in chief, erasing Kerry's edge in the latter after his convention late last month.
The race between the two remains essentially unchanged — even among likely voters, at 48 percent to 48 percent. But the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows clear deflation for Kerry across a range of measures: Strong enthusiasm for his candidacy has dropped by 16 points (almost precisely what it gained after Boston), and his personal favorability rating has lost eight points to hit a new low. Bush, meanwhile, has chipped five points off the number of Americans who see him unfavorably.
This doesn't suddenly make Bush a popular president: His overall job approval rating is 52 percent among registered voters, with less than 50 percent approval for his work on Iraq, the economy, taxes and health care. Fifty-four percent are dissatisfied with the nation's direction, and 46 percent think most Americans have gotten worse off financially under his presidency. But politics is comparative, and on many fronts Bush is looking better against Kerry than he did a month ago.
Though the "swift boat" controversy is a convenient foil — and can't have helped Kerry — the shift looks to represent broader assessments. The Massachusetts senator has lost ground on unrelated items ranging from "a vision for the future" to trust to handle health care and education. And his losses have occurred as much among nonveterans as among military vets.
Instead the biggest changes have occurred among groups including women; voters at both ends of the age spectrum (the youngest and seniors); and those in the so-called battleground states, where the campaigns have advertised most heavily. In those states the Bush-Kerry race stands at 53 percent to 44 percent among likely voters; elsewhere, 45 percent to 50 percent.
While the race among likely voters overall is essentially unchanged (up a point for Bush and down a point for Kerry since Aug. 1), there's been a bit more movement among all registered voters, with Bush +4 and Kerry -3; they now stand 48-47 percent among registereds, compared with 44 percent to 50 percent (Bush-Kerry) after the Democratic convention. In all measures, Ralph Nader has just 1 percent or 2 percent support.
But the real action this year is beneath the surface — an unusual feature of this election that probably owes much to the public's high levels of partisanship, early commitment and strong support. While the overall horse race holds essentially steady, the issue and character judgments underlying it show ongoing reassessment. Where they come out — and to what extent they inform final decisions — will tell the story Nov. 2.
The public clearly is focused: Forty-three percent of registered voters are closely following the race, 15 points more than at this time in 2000. Moveable voters — those who say there's any chance they may change their minds — make up just 18 percent, down from 26 percent in June. And only about a third of these say there's a "good chance" they'll change their minds; most say it's unlikely.
The economy has pulled farther ahead of its closest competitors as the leading factor in this election; 31 percent say it's the most important issue in their vote, while 19 percent apiece pick Iraq or terrorism. Health care's fairly close behind, at 12 percent.
But the economy is less threatening to Bush than it's been: Today registered voters divide evenly on whom they trust more to handle it — Bush, 48 percent, or Kerry, 47 percent, as opposed to a 52 percent to 41 percent Kerry lead on Aug. 1. Bush, meanwhile, now leads Kerry by 52 percent to 44 percent in trust to handle Iraq, and by 56 percent to 38 percent on terrorism.
It's similar on other issues: On education, Kerry led by 13 points after his convention; now they're even. On taxes Kerry had led by six; now they're essentially even (a scant Bush +2). And on health care Kerry had led by 19 points; now he leads by seven.
This poll tested four additional issues. Registered voters trust Kerry by 13 points, 51 percent to 38 percent, to handle prescription drug benefits for the elderly; that's a meaningful weakness for Bush on an issue he's tried to claim through the new (but poorly received) Medicare benefit. Registered voters also prefer Kerry by nine points on "helping the middle class," about the same as Al Gore's lead on this issue in the closing days of the 2000 campaign.
Kerry also leads Bush, by 45 percent to 37 percent, in trust to handle stem-cell research. But Bush comes back with a 12-point lead, 49 percent to 37 percent, in trust to handle the issue of same-sex marriage.
War and Terrorism
While the public remains divided on the war in Iraq — half say it wasn't worth fighting — two factors mitigate the damage to Bush. One is that 57 percent of registered voters reject the notion that the administration "intentionally misled" the public as it made the case for war. The other is that 54 percent believe the war did contribute to the long-term security of the United States — its fundamental rationale.
Indeed it may be that the key political event for Bush this summer was the handover of authority in Iraq on June 28. Before that date his approval ratings for handling Iraq, and terrorism more broadly, were at or near their lows. His approval rating today on Iraq, while just 47 percent, is six points above its low in late May. And his approval rating for handling terrorism, 60 percent, is nine points better than its low among registered voters on June 20.
Fifty-four percent believe the United States is winning the war on terrorism — an interesting counterpoint to Bush's comment that it can't be won (31 percent say the United States is losing). But perhaps most critically for this president, 60 percent believe the country is safer from terrorism now than it was before Sept. 11, 2001.
The public divides on whether Bush should get credit for the fact that there hasn't been another attack on U.S. soil since then — 51 percent say yes, 48 percent no. But even if not cognitively, it still accrues to his benefit: Among people who say the country is safer, Bush has a nearly 40-point lead over Kerry, 67 percent to 28 percent.
Bush has improved his position in the past month among the one in five registered voters who pick Iraq as the single most important issue in their choice; while he now trails Kerry by 56 percent to 38 percent in this group, it'd been 72 percent to 26 percent after the Democratic convention.
Kerry has retained a sizable lead among those who say the economy is their top issue (even though Bush has improved vs. Kerry on this issue more broadly, across all registered voters). But among those who say the top issue in their vote is terrorism, Bush leads Kerry by a huge 87 percent to 12 percent. The nation's response to terrorism has been the wellspring of Bush's support, and as such it's the issue he can be expected to stress above all others this week.
Attitudes and Favorability
As important as issues are attributes — voter perceptions of the candidates' personal qualities — and on these Bush has rebounded as well. His best is strong leadership, a 54 percent to 39 percent Bush advantage over Kerry; it was 50-44 percent after the Democratic convention.
Bush also has a 13-point advantage as the candidate who'll make the country safer and more secure, up from just +3 on Aug. 1. And he's turned a six-point deficit as more "honest and trustworthy" into a six-point advantage.
Kerry led by 13 points after his convention as having "a vision for the future"; now it's Kerry +3. And Kerry's edge on understanding "the problems of people like you" has eased from 14 points then to six points now.
Personal favorability, the most basic measure of a public figure's popularity, is another problem for Kerry. Last March, as he emerged victorious from the Democratic primaries, 54 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of him, 26 percent unfavorable. On Aug. 1, after his convention, it was 51 percent to 32 percent. Today it's 43 percent to 40 percent.
Bush's favorability rating, at 50 percent to 40 percent, is better than Kerry's in this survey, and Vice President Dick Cheney's, at 41 percent to 45 percent, isn't that much worse. For inspiration all three might look to Laura Bush; 66 percent of registered voters have a favorable opinion of her. (She even terminates California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has a 46 percent to 29 percent favorability rating, with many withholding judgment.)
This poll suggests collateral damage rather than a direct hit from the "swift boat" ads questioning Kerry's military service. They may have moved Kerry off his message, and they may have sown some doubts among a minority of registered voters: Four in 10 either don't think Kerry legitimately earned his medals (23 percent) or are unsure (17 percent). That includes 36 percent of independents and 18 percent of Democrats, soaring to 64 percent of Republicans.
Still, however, six in 10 believe Kerry did earn his decorations, and 67 percent disapprove of the ads. Fewer, though, 42 percent, accept his contention that the Bush campaign was behind them.
Overall, Kerry's service is still a net positive: More people say they're more likely to support him for president because of his military service in the Navy, 24 percent, than less likely, 14 percent (most, 61 percent, say it won't affect their vote). That's better than it is for Bush: Just 7 percent are more likely to support him because of his military service in the Texas National Guard, 22 percent less likely.
There may be more potential downside for Kerry in a separate issue, his prominent opposition to the Vietnam War after leaving the military. Twenty-one percent say they're more likely to vote for him because of this activity, but 26 percent are less likely to support him. Specifically among veterans, moreover, it's 20 percent "more likely," but 38 percent less so.
As noted, most of the shifts on issues and attributes in this survey have come among women, older voters and those in states where the campaigns are doing most of their advertising and appearances. It's also apparent among younger voters, though that sample is too small for firm conclusions.
In the past month, for example, Kerry's favorability rating — down eight points overall — lost 14 points in the so-called battleground states compared with five in the rest of the country; and lost 11 points among women compared with six points among men. In trust to handle the economy, preference for Bush gained seven points overall, but 13 points among seniors and 19 points in the contested states.
Finally there's the fundamental issue of party preference. It shifted to the Democrats after their convention: Thirty-nine percent of registered voters in the Aug. 1 ABC/Post poll identified themselves as Democrats, 29 percent as Republicans and 26 percent as independents (among likely voters it was a 40 percent-32 percent-24 percent).
That's more Democratic, and less Republican, than usual; and indeed in this poll it has settled back to 32 percent-33 percent-29 percent percent among registereds, and 34 percent-36 percent-27 percent among likely voters, who account for 56 percent of the general population in this suvrey.
Moving party loyalty is one of the aims of political conventions, and now it's Bush's turn to try. The question, as with Kerry, is not only whether he can create movement, but if so, how long he can keep it.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Aug. 26-29 among a random national sample of 1,207 adults, including 945 registered voters. The results have a three-point error margin for registered voters, 3.5 points for likely voters. Sampling, data collection and tabulation were done by TNS of Horsham, Pa.
See previous analyses in our Poll Vault.