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.
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.