September 16, 2004

Kerry Support Rebounds, Race Again Even

Strong Interest in Debates

Introduction and Summary

Voter opinion in the presidential race has seesawed dramatically in the first two weeks of September. Following a successful nominating convention, George W. Bush broke open a deadlocked contest and jumped out to a big lead over John Kerry. However, polling this past week finds that Bush’s edge over his Democratic rival has eroded. Reflecting this new volatility in the race, the size of the swing vote has increased slightly since the summer, rather than contracting as it typically does as the election approaches.

The latest national survey of 1,972 registered voters by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted in two waves over a seven-day period, finds that the president’s large margin of support in the initial period (Sept. 8-10) dissipated in the polling conducted Sept. 11-14. Among all registered voters Bush initially led Kerry by 52%-40%. However, the second wave of interviewing shows the race even among registered voters, at 46%-46%. When the sample is narrowed to likely voters, Bush holds a statistically insignificant lead of 47%-46% in the second wave, down from a huge 54%-38% advantage he held in the first wave of interviews.

The shifting voter sentiment observed in this poll reflects a number of cross currents in public opinion. Hard-hitting attacks against the Democratic challenger throughout August and during the Republican convention took a heavy toll on Kerry’s personal image. Kerry’s positive support waned, fewer voters expressed confidence in him to deal with major issues, and perceptions of him as a ‘flip-flopper’ rose noticeably.

In contrast, Bush improved his personal image in early September and erased or reduced his rival’s advantage on most issues. At the same time, however, Bush showed continued vulnerability on Iraq and the economy. A plurality of the public still disapproved of the president’s stewardship of the economy. While opinion of his handling of Iraq has inched up since the early summer, nearly six-in-ten voters (58%) say it is not clear what Bush will do about Iraq if he is reelected.

As more time has passed since the Aug. 30-Sept.2 Republican convention, Kerry’s unfavorable ratings have receded somewhat. And while Kerry no longer holds the big advantage he once had on most issues, his standing relative to Bush has rebounded slightly on the economy.

The second wave of polling also finds less acceptance of Republican criticism of the Democratic candidate. Fewer voters agree with the statement “John Kerry changes his mind too much.” Fewer think the chances of terrorism would increase if Kerry is elected. In addition, a substantial majority of voters (66%) believe Vice President Cheney went too far when he suggested recently that risk of terrorism would increase if voters “make the wrong choice.” That opinion remained steady through the polling period.

Yet in several other areas, the Democratic contender has not recaptured the ground he lost in August. A majority of the electorate (52%) believes Bush can best handle the situation in Iraq, while 40% choose Kerry. And Bush’s advantage over Kerry on dealing with the threat of terrorism, which widened considerably in the Sept. 8-10 survey, remains undiminished.

Bush’s biggest personal asset is his strong leadership image. By roughly two-to-one (58%-30%) voters say the phrase “strong leader” describes Bush rather than Kerry, and that view remained steady through the polling period. Moreover, Bush’s supporters cite his leadership abilities as a basis of their vote far more often than did President Clinton’s supporters during his reelection campaign in 1996, or former President Bush’s backers four years earlier.

The firm commitment of the president’s constituency also stands out. George W. Bush registers a higher proportion of strong support than any other candidate in elections dating back to 1988. In contrast, Kerry’s supporters have lost some zeal since early August, and more continue to say they are voting against Bush rather than for Kerry.

Kerry’s slippage in the post-convention polls also has undermined confidence in his chances of victory, including among Democrats. The percentage of all voters anticipating a Bush victory climbed from 44% in August to 60% in September, a figure that held steady through the polling period. Among Democrats, the number predicting a Kerry victory fell from 66% in August to 43% this month.

The tightening race underscores the stakes for both candidates in the upcoming presidential debates. The public remains highly engaged in the campaign: 71% say they have given a lot of thought to the election and 40% are following election news very closely, up from just 22% four years ago.

This increased attentiveness is carrying over into heightened interest in the debates. Six-in-ten voters (61%) say it is very likely they will watch the debates between Bush and Kerry, which is significantly higher than debate interest in the last two elections.

In general, campaign 2004 continues to get high marks from the voters. Nearly all voters (90%) view the campaign as “important,” and 63% believe it has been “informative.” Moreover, the number who describe the campaign as “interesting” increased sharply over the summer, from 31% in June to 50% currently. Reflecting the campaign’s recent nasty turn, however, more voters also characterize the campaign as “too negative” ­ 62% say that now, compared with 46% two months ago.

Other key findings of the survey: