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.