Oct. 19, 2004— -- The economy and jobs dominate as the top issue in Ohio, lending fuel to John Kerry's candidacy -- and keeping the presidential race very close in this potentially crucial state.
A third of likely voters in Ohio call the economy and jobs the most important issue in their vote, putting it substantially ahead of terrorism, Iraq or health care. The economy stands taller as the top concern in Ohio than nationally -- and that helps Kerry. Likely voters who pick it as their top issue favor him over President Bush by 73 percent to 25 percent.
In the race overall, 50 percent of Ohio likely voters in this ABC News poll favor Kerry, with 47 percent for Bush -- a close race, with the difference between the candidates within the survey's margin of sampling error. It remains 50 percent to 47 percent with Nader in the race; he's currently off the ballot with a court challenge pending.
In another contest of interest, likely voters divide on a proposed amendment to the Ohio state constitution banning gay marriage, with 48 percent in favor, 45 percent opposed. That contest may be pulling a few, but just a few, voters to the polls: Four percent call it the most important contest on the ballot. And preferences in the state's U.S. Senate race show a very large lead for the incumbent Republican, George Voinovich.
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The economic concerns make sense: Unemployment in Ohio (in the latest data, from August) is 6.3 percent, up from 4.2 percent in August 2000, when Bush beat Al Gore in the state by 166,735 votes. In 2000 Ohio's unemployment rate was almost identical to the national average, 4.1 percent; now Ohio's rate is nearly a point worse than unemployment nationally.
More than half of likely voters, 54 percent, say most Ohioans are not as well off financially as when Bush became president, underscoring his vulnerability on the economy. Just 10 percent say most people are better off, while about a third think most people in the state are about the same financially as when Bush came to office.
These views inform votes. Among likely voters who say most people in Ohio are worse off, 83 percent favor Kerry for president. By equally huge margins, those who say the state's residents are better off, or the same, favor Bush.
On the economic front it's notable, too, that Kerry leads Bush by 61 percent to 36 percent among voters with household incomes under $50,000 -- while among better-off voters, Bush leads by 55 percent to 43 percent.
Election history prompts the intense focus on Ohio this year. No Republican presidential candidate has won the presidency without Ohio, and only two Democrats have won without Ohio since 1900 -- Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. At the same time, history is not predictive, and each election is new.
The race is hardly decided. Kerry holds an edge over Bush on some issues -- helping the middle class, creating jobs and health care. But they're close to even (Kerry +4) in trust to handle the economy overall, and Bush leads in Ohio, as elsewhere, on terrorism and the war in Iraq.
Bush also beats Kerry on four of eight candidate qualities -- some by large margins -- including leadership, clarity and making the country safer. And Bush's job approval rating among likely voters, at 51 percent, is just over the crucial halfway mark.
All these suggest a hard-fought race in Ohio during the next two weeks.
In another difference from the race nationally, Kerry and Bush run about evenly in voter enthusiasm in Ohio: Fifty-eight percent of Bush's supporters say they're "very enthusiastic" about his candidacy; 54 percent of Kerry's voters say the same about their guy. Nationally, by contrast, Bush has the advantage on strong enthusiasm, with 59 percent compared to Kerry's 45 percent.
Enthusiasm can influence turnout, critical in a close race. So can individual contact, and the campaigns have been impressively active in Ohio: Thirty-two percent of likely voters say they've been contacted by the Bush campaign, 30 percent by the Kerry campaign. Each side is having about equal success: Sixty-one percent of those contacted by the Bush campaign say they'll vote for him, and two-thirds of those contacted by Kerry's campaign favor Kerry. About a third each say they'll be going for the other guy.
Kerry's biggest leads on individual issues are a 12-point advantage in "helping the middle class" and a 10-point lead on creating jobs -- both clearly of interest to Ohio voters. Bush has a 15-point lead in trust to handle terrorism, and a 10-point advantage in trust to handle the war in Iraq -- the Nos. 2 and 3 items on the list of top issues. It's Kerry +7 on the next most-cited issue, health care.
On another issue of interest, given the proposed constitutional amendment, Ohioans trust Bush over Kerry to handle the issue of same-sex marriage, by a comparatively close 47 percent to 40 percent.
As noted, Kerry leads Bush by 48 points among Ohio likely voters who say the economy is their No. 1 issue, by 40 points among those who say it's health care and by 18 points among Iraq issue voters. Terrorism is Bush's comeback: Among likely voters who say it's the top issue, he leads Kerry by 76 points, 87 percent to 11 percent.
Underlying attitudes about the war, terrorism and the president also define the Ohio battleground. By more than 2-1 (62 percent to 30 percent) likely voters think the country is safer now than before 9/11, a benefit for Bush. But they're split straight down the middle on whether the Iraq war was worth fighting, 49 percent to 49 percent.
Bush holds significant leads over Kerry on several key attributes, a potential source of strength among wavering or moveable voters. Bush leads by 33 points as the candidate likely voters think has strong religious faith; by 15 points on strong leadership; by 14 points on taking a clear stand on the issues; and by 11 points on making the country safer and more secure.
But Bush and Kerry run about evenly, 44 percent to 42 percent, on honesty and trustworthiness, perhaps the most fundamental candidate quality; that compares to a nine-point Bush lead on honesty nationally. Ohioans are similarly evenly split on which candidate has the more appealing personality (45 percent to 44 percent); and it's dead even on who shares voters' values -- 47 percent pick Bush, 47 percent Kerry.
Kerry leads Bush on one attribute of the eight tested: When it comes to who "understands the problems of people like you," Ohio likely voters pick Kerry by 48 percent to 40 percent.
On overall popularity, Ohioans divide on both men. Bush has a favorable-unfavorable rating of 50 percent to 45 percent; Kerry, 47 percent to 45 percent. Both are similar to their ratings nationally.
Ohio's "Issue 1" would amend the state constitution to define marriage as only being between a man and a woman, and would prohibit legally recognized civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. As noted, likely voters are about evenly divided; 48 percent say they'd vote for it; 45 percent against.
The amendment is the main draw for few voters -- but in a close presidential race, a few can make the difference. Overall 4 percent of likely voters call the amendment the most important contest on the ballot -- much too small a group to reliably analyze their presidential preference. Among one of the target voter groups for this amendment -- white evangelical Protestants -- 7 percent say it's the main draw.
The amendment incites strong opinions on both sides, but slightly stronger on the support side. Thirty-nine percent of likely voters strongly support the amendment, while 32 percent strongly oppose it. Two-thirds of opponents of the amendment favor Kerry for president; about the same number of amendment supporters favor Bush.
Views on the amendment draw sharp lines across the electorate. Republicans, conservatives and evangelical white Protestants support it by about 40-point margins. White Catholics, key swing voters who supported Bush over Gore by seven points in Ohio in 2000, favor the amendment by a closer 51 percent to 41 percent.
Democrats are not as lopsided in their view; 54 percent of Democrats oppose the amendment, but 37 percent of Democrats support it. Independents oppose it by a very similar margin as Democrats, 54 percent to 41 percent.
Women and men divide about evenly on the proposal, with marital status a key factor. Married men and women alike support the amendment; unmarried men and women oppose it.
Polling results on a controversial amendment such as this one can be sensitive to how the question is asked. A University of Cincinnati poll last month, which found 2-1 support for the amendment, first asked likely voters if they were aware of the "Marriage Protection Act," and then read them the full text of the ballot language: "Only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid or recognized by Ohio and its political subdivisions. Ohio and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance or effect of marriage."
This ABC News poll, by contrast, summarized: "There's a proposed amendment to the Ohio constitution that would define marriage as being only between a man and a woman, and that would prohibit legally recognized civil unions for gay and lesbian couples."
Both presidential candidates are strong in their core groups: Kerry loses 9 percent of Democrats to Bush, Bush loses the same number of Republicans to Kerry.
In the two key swing voter groups, independents divide by 52 percent to 44 percent, and white Catholics by a closer 49 percent to 50 percent, Kerry-Bush. Union voters may be another key: Voters in union households favor Kerry by 27 points, and they made up 36 percent of the Ohio electorate in 2000.
Regionally, Bush has double-digit leads in the northwestern (including Toledo) and southwestern (including Cincinnati) areas of the state. Kerry has a 43-point lead in Cleveland, and a 14-point lead in the northeast. Central Ohio splits about evenly.
Men are worth watching: They divide by 51 percent to 46 percent, Bush-Kerry; in 2000, by contrast, Bush beat Gore by 18 points among men. Kerry currently holds a 10-point lead among women; Gore won them by 53 percent to 45 percent in 2000.
As noted, Republican Sen. George Voinovich holds a commanding lead over Democratic challenger Eric Fingerhut, 60 percent to 35 percent. Voinovich leads across almost all demographic groups; only among Democrats, non-whites, liberals and those who pick health care as their top issue do majorities favor Fingerhut. Indeed, Voinovich is supported by a sizable 26 percent of Democrats, and he leads in all regions of the state but Cleveland.
There's significant crossover voting between the Senate and presidential races: Twenty-seven percent of Voinovich's supporters prefer Kerry for president.
This ABC News poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 14-17 among a random sample of 1,027 registered voters in Ohio, including 789 likely voters. The results have a 3.5-point error margin for the likely voter sample. Sampling, data collection and tabulation conducted by TNS of Horsham, Pa.
See previous analyses in our Poll Vault.