Better targeting and strength in his cornerstone issues are boosting President Bush in Wisconsin, where the president's campaign shows more effective voter contact, and where he holds huge leads in terrorism, security, leadership and clarity.
Retail politics is helping Bush in two ways: Registered voters are six points more apt to have been contacted by his campaign than by John Kerry's, 25 percent to 19 percent. And six in 10 of those reached by Bush's campaign support him, while Kerry's supported by fewer than half of the Wisconsin voters his campaign has personally contacted.
As elsewhere, economic concerns work best for Kerry in Wisconsin. But here he only runs about evenly with Bush in trust to handle the economy, compared with an eight-point Kerry lead on the economy in an ABC News poll in Pennsylvania last week. And Bush hammers Kerry on a range of attributes, including personal favorability.
All told, this ABC News poll finds Bush leading Kerry by 53 percent to 43 percent among likely voters in Wisconsin, with 1 percent for Ralph Nader. (Nader is on the ballot for now. Excluding him it's a similar 54 percent to 44 percent Bush lead.) Among the broader group of all registered voters, it's 50 percent-44 percent-2 percent with Nader, and 51 percent to 45 percent without him.
Despite Bush's lead in the presidential race, incumbent Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold holds a 51 percent to 45 percent advantage among likely voters over construction executive and former Army officer Tim Michels in their race. Feingold is lifted by support from nearly six in 10 women, and he's wooing away close to two in 10 Bush supporters. Michels, though, leads by about 20 points among veterans.
As is the case nationally, there are vulnerabilities for Bush in Wisconsin that Kerry can try to exploit. About half of registered voters say the war in Iraq wasn't worth fighting. A bare majority is dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country. More cite the economy than any other issue as most important in their vote, and Kerry leads on two economic measures — in trust to handle "creating jobs" and "helping the middle class." Kerry also leads Bush by 49 percent to 40 percent in trust to handle health care, an issue that's on par with terrorism in its importance to voters.
But while Kerry held an eight-point advantage in trust to handle the economy in an ABC News poll in Pennsylvania last week, in Wisconsin it's Bush +3 (essentially even, given polling tolerances). And Kerry's leads on health care, jobs and the middle class pale in comparison to Bush's 24- and 19-point leads in trust to handle terrorism and Iraq. Indeed even a quarter of Democrats trust Bush over Kerry to handle terrorism.
Bush's greatest advantages in Wisconsin, however, aren't in issues but in personal attributes. He leads in seven of eight qualities tested in this poll, including double-digit leads in six of them. Kerry runs about evenly, +3, in one, empathy.
Some of these Bush leads are enormous: Registered voters in Wisconsin say by 20 to 30 points that he's the stronger leader, will make the country safer and has taken a clearer stand on the issues. (Even among Democrats, 27 percent see Bush as the stronger leader and 24 percent say he's taken clearer stands.) And Bush holds 10- to 15-point leads as the candidate with the more appealing personality, as a better commander-in-chief and on honesty. It's Bush +8 on another attribute, "shares your values."
Bush's advantage as a strong leader, on which he's preferred by 60 percent to 32 percent over Kerry, is another in which his margin in Wisconsin is bigger than in ABC's Pennsylvania poll (and more like its level nationally in an ABC News/Washington Post poll Sept. 9). It matters: Wisconsinites by 55 percent to 37 percent say having a strong leader as president is more important to them than someone who understands their problems. And Bush wins support from seven in 10 of those who say a strong leader is more important.
Favorables and Strengths
Several other results in this poll underscore Kerry's difficulties in Wisconsin. As was the case in the last national ABC/Post poll, he has a net negative personal favorability rating — just 37 percent of Wisconsin's registered voters have a positive impression of him, while 43 percent see him unfavorably.
Bush by contrast has a 52 percent favorability rating and 54 percent job approval among registered voters in Wisconsin. Indeed among likely voters, his job rating is 57 percent.
And enthusiasm for Kerry is weaker than for Bush. Thirty-nine percent of Kerry's supporters in this poll say they are "very enthusiastic" about him, compared with 51 percent of Bush's.
As has been the case nationally, most of Kerry's support is more of an anti-Bush vote than a pro-Kerry one. Fifty-four percent of Kerry's Wisconsin supporters say their vote is more against Bush than for Kerry. Eight in 10 Bush supporters, by contrast, are for him.
Forging change may be difficult. Fewer than two in 10 registered voters say there's a chance they'll change their mind, and it's just 14 percent among likely voters. And fewer — in the single digits — say there's a "good chance" they may change.
As noted, 51 percent of registered voters are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States, 47 percent are satisfied. Among those who are dissatisfied, 17 percent support Bush; while a bit fewer of those who are satisfied, 11 percent, go to Kerry.
Similarly, 43 percent of registered voters say most people in Wisconsin have become worse off financially under Bush. But 15 percent of them support Bush nonetheless, and he holds huge advantages among those who say most people are better off, or the same.
Kerry leads Bush by 15 to 22 points among Wisconsin voters who cite either Iraq, the economy or health care as the single most important issue in their vote. In that sense his appeal on issues can be said to be broader than Bush's.
But Bush's is deeper: Among people who call terrorism their top issue, nearly nine in 10 back him. And Bush holds a 49-point lead among Wisconsin voters who say the country's safer now than it was before Sept. 11, 2001. Fifty-nine percent think so.
Partisanship is one reason for the differences between Wisconsin and the race in Pennsylvania, where the overall contest was about even in last week's ABC News poll, 49 percent to 48 percent (Nader is not on the ballot). In Pennsylvania, 41 percent of likely voters identified themselves as Democrats, 36 percent as Republicans. In this poll in Wisconsin, by contrast, 35 percent of likely voters are Republicans, 29 percent Democrats.
Ultimate loyalties on Election Day remain to be seen; in the 2000 exit poll more Wisconsin voters were Democrats than Republicans, by a five-point margin, and in 1996 it was about even, +1 Democrat. Wisconsin has voted Democratic in the last four presidential elections; Al Gore won the state by 5,708 votes in 2000.
Party loyalty isn't the only reason Bush leads in Wisconsin, however. Among likely voters, independents — the quintessential swing-voter group — prefer him by 52 percent to 40 percent. (They make up 29 percent of likely voters in this poll.)
There's a gender gap among registered voters in Wisconsin — Bush has a 17-point lead among men, while Kerry has a slight four-point edge among women. But most women as well as most men (albeit by smaller margins), trust Bush over Kerry to handle terrorism, and say Bush is a stronger leader and has taken clearer stands on the issues.
There are also large regional differences, with Bush holding substantial leads in the northeastern part of the state and in the areas surrounding Milwaukee, while Kerry leads in the south and, by a smaller margin, in Milwaukee. The candidates are tied in the state's northwest.
Bush leads among white Catholics, another quintessential swing-voter group, who account for about a third of Wisconsin's registered voters. Fifty-four percent back him, 43 percent Kerry. By contrast, Gore barely edged out Bush among white Catholics in 2000, 49 percent to 48 percent.
Bush is supported by about two-thirds of Wisconsin's veterans, and comes close to Kerry among union households, a group he lost by 16 points to Gore in 2000. Union household turnout has been higher in recent presidential elections in Wisconsin than is reflected in this poll; boosting union turnout would help Kerry here — but not vastly, since he holds just a four-point lead in this group.
Likely voters in this poll account for 66 percent of Wisconsin's adult population, identical to the state's voter turnout in 2000. There are two quirks of election law in Wisconsin: Small-town residents are not required to register to vote, and residents can walk in and register on Election Day. Both were accounted for in this survey.
This ABC News poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 16-19 among a random sample of 1,050 adults in Wisconsin, including 938 registered voters. The results have a three-point error margin for registered voters, 3.5 points for likely voters. Sampling, data collection and tabulation was done by TNS of Horsham, Pa.
See previous analyses in our Poll Vault.