Poll: Opinions on Issues Offer Debate Blueprint

John Kerry has an opening on the issue of jobs: Likely voters trust him over President Bush to create more of them, by a margin of 49 percent to 44 percent. But the economy isn't the only issue in this campaign, a fact that complicates Kerry's run for the presidency.

Likely voters in the latest ABC News tracking poll divide precisely evenly among three top issues: 23 percent say it's the economy and jobs, 23 percent say it's Iraq and 23 percent say it's the war on terrorism. Bush leads in trust to handle the latter two — but on the war in Iraq, by less of a margin than previously.

All told, the race remains close: Fifty percent of likely voters support Bush and 47 percent favor Kerry in this poll, based on interviews conducted during the last three nights. The contest pulled closer in midweek after last week's presidential debate, raising the stakes for the second Bush-Kerry debate, in St. Louis tonight.

The 2004 Election Among Likely Voters

Debate Blueprint

The candidates' standings in trust to handle various issues lay out a blueprint of sorts for the debate. The economy is one clear battlefield: While Kerry has a five-point lead in trust to handle job creation specifically, the two candidates are essentially tied, 48 percent to 47 percent, when it comes to handling the economy more broadly. The economy could be a tipping issue — if either candidate can find a way to turn it to his advantage.

Sampling, data collection and tabulation for this poll were done by TNS.

Kerry also may try to build upon his five-point lead in trust to handle health care. And he may seek to erode Bush's lead in trust to handle Iraq — an issue on which the president's advantage has narrowed gradually from 18 points, 55 percent to 37 percent, just after the Republican convention, to 10 points, 53 percent to 43 percent, now.

While it's a much lower-tier issue in terms of importance to voters, Kerry could also seek to capitalize on the 18-point lead he's opened over Bush, 52 percent to 34 percent, in trust to handle stem-cell research. That's grown from a seven-point Kerry lead late last month.

Bush, in turn, is likely to underscore his advantage in trust to handle terrorism (15 points, and the wellspring of his support), to push Kerry back on the economy, jobs and health care, and to remain competitive on education. Education was key for Bush in 2000; he battled to near-parity on this issue, on which the Democrats had traditionally led, and he remains there. Likely voters today divide, 48 percent/46 percent Bush/Kerry, in trust to handle it.

The public also divides essentially evenly in trust to handle same-sex marriage, an issue that, like stem-cell research, has been far lower on overall priority lists. It's been of greatest importance to elements of Bush's base — conservatives and evangelical white Protestants — than to others, and they favor him to handle it by roughly 50-point margins. At the same time, Bush has lost ground on this issue since late August, when he led in trust to handle it by 12 points.

Trust to Handle Issues
Terrorism55-40%Bush +15Bush +15 (9/26)
Iraq53-43Bush +7Bush +12 (9/26)
Education48-46Bush +2Bush +17 (9/8)
Stem-cell Research34-52Kerry +18Kerry +7 (8/29)
Health Care44-49Kerry +5Bush +2 (9/8)
Creating Jobs44-49Kerry +5Kerry +1 (9/26)
Economy47-48Kerry +1Bush +5 (9/26)
Same-Sex Marriage42-43Kerry +1Bush +12 (8/29)

Tonight's debate serves as an opportunity for Kerry to make his case on domestic issues before a broad audience, to elevate their importance to a level that contests with concerns about terrorism, and perhaps to challenge Bush further on Iraq. Bush's opportunity is to recover from his loss of the first debate, to make his best case on the economy, and to hammer home his core issue — security.

Interest is huge — 53 percent of registered voters are following the presidential election very closely, compared with 30 percent at this time in 2000. And 76 percent of registered voters say they plan to watch the debate tonight. (It'll compete, however, with the Yankees-Twins game — and the fact that it's a Friday night.)


Today's monthly jobs report, the last before the election, will be a likely topic of the debate. It reported modest growth in employment in September, weaker than forecasters had predicted.

At the same time, public views of the economy are based on a range of factors. Consumer confidence overall is very near its 18-year average in the weekly ABC News/Money magazine poll. And, in tracking poll results earlier this week, as many likely voters said their finances had improved under Bush as said they'd gotten worse off — 30 percent each, with the rest saying they were doing the same.

The differences from some previous election years are striking. In 2000 there was broad agreement that the economy was in good shape; in 1992, broad agreement that it was in the tank. Today there's more room for argument — and that opens the door for bigger-than-usual partisan differences in economic assessments. While 52 percent of Democrats say they've gotten worse off financially under Bush, that falls to 29 percent of independents, and 10 percent of Republicans.

Importance of the economy as an issue has declined from its peak. In an Aug. 29 ABC News/Washington Post poll, just before the Republican convention, 31 percent called it the most important issue in their vote, compared with 23 percent today.

Candidate Issues

Looking at issue priorities among each candidates' backers also provides a telling assessment of their support profiles. Among Bush voters, 43 percent say terrorism is the No. 1 issue in their vote; among Kerry supporters, it's 4 percent. No. 1 for Kerry supporters are the economy and Iraq; for Bush voters both are much lower in importance.


Because incumbent elections start with an assessment of the incumbent's performance, another important number for Bush is his re-elect reading — the number of people who say he "deserves a second term." Barely more than half, 51 percent of likely voters, say he does — slipping to just under half of independents, 47 percent (and 16 percent of Democrats).

That compares with a 54 percent to 43 percent division on this question among likely voters just after the Republican convention. Bush clearly would like to improve his re-elect number particularly among independents, the key swing voters in any presidential election.


There are some differences among groups on the issues. Men are 12 points more likely than women to cite terrorism as the most important issue in their vote, while women are 10 points more apt to say it's Iraq.

Most Important Issue
IssueAmong MenAmong Women
Health Care911

Part of that is party-driven; women also are eight points more apt than men to identify themselves as Democrats, a long-standing gender gap in political allegiance.


A final point worth nothing: This is the first ABC News poll in this election in which support for Ralph Nader has slipped under 0.5 percent. Respondents are asked whether they support Bush, Kerry or Nader in the states where Nader is on or may still win a place on the ballot; Nader's name is not asked in the states where he's been ruled off the ballot and is not appealing.


This poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 5-7 among a random national sample of 1,802 adults, including 1,513 registered voters and 1,171 likely voters. The results have a three-point error margin for the likely voter sample. ABC News and The Washington Post are sharing data collection for this tracking poll, then independently applying their own models to arrive at likely voter estimates. Sampling, data collection and tabulation were done by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

See previous analyses in our Poll Vault.