October 4, 2004

Kerry Wins Debate, But Little Change in Candidate Images

Bush 49%-Kerry 44% Among Likely Voters

Summary of Findings

By two-to-one, voters who watched the first presidential debate believe that John Kerry prevailed. But the widely viewed Sept. 30 showdown did not result in a sea change in opinions of the candidates. As a consequence, George W. Bush continues to have a much stronger personal image than his Democratic challenger, while voters express more confidence in Kerry on key domestic issues like the economy and health care.

The latest national poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Oct. 1-3 among 1,002 registered voters, finds Bush maintaining a 48%-41% lead over Kerry among all voters. However, the internals of the poll suggest that Bush’s margin slipped somewhat over the course of the weekend, as a growing number of voters came to see Kerry as the debate winner.

When the sample is narrowed to likely voters, Bush holds a modest 49%-44% edge in voting intentions. This marks the first time in 16 years of Pew Research Center polling that a Democratic candidate has made a better showing on a likely voter base than on the basis of all registered voters. (Note: Likely voters are determined by a six-question series that measures interest in the election, intention to vote and a respondent’s past voting history. For this analysis, it is assumed that 55% of the voting age population will cast a vote in November.)

The high level of Democratic motivation to vote is surprising given that only half of Democratic voters think that Kerry will win in November. By comparison, fully 85%of Republicans and even 60% of independents expect Bush will win the election.

Overall voter engagement in the campaign and the debates continues to be unusually strong. Roughly six-in-ten voters (59%) say they are very likely to tune into Friday’s second presidential debate. That is nearly as many as said would watch the first debate (61%), which drew a huge television audience. However, significantly fewer voters (41%) intend to watch Tuesday night’s debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and his Democratic opponent John Edwards.

While there is general agreement that Kerry won the initial debate, voters are divided in their views of major criticisms raised by the candidates during that encounter. The charge that Kerry changes his mind too much to be an effective commander in chief ­ a familiar Bush theme in the debate ­ rings true for nearly half (49%) of all voters who watched the debate. But swing voters who watched the debate are evenly split over the criticism that Kerry changes his mind too much to be a good commander in chief (37% agree, 36% do not).

Voters who watched the debate are divided as to whether Kerry would give the allies too much of a say over U.S. foreign policy, as Bush contended. However, this criticism fell flat among swing voters who tuned into the debates ­ only about a quarter (26%) think Kerry would cede too much control to the allies, compared with 44% who disagree.

The charge that President Bush has made major misjudgements in his handling of foreign policy and security issues ­ a favorite Kerry theme ­ also divided all debate watchers. But half of swing voters who watched the debate accept this view, while 42% do not. On balance, however, swing voters who watched the debate do not believe Bush is too inflexible in his thinking about foreign policy. Just 38% of this group thinks that Bush is too rigid in foreign policy, while 49% disagree.

The general belief that Kerry won the debate has not appreciably improved his overall image. A 53% majority of all voters say they have a positive impression of the Massachusetts Democrat, while 41% express a negative opinion. Despite the fact that debate watchers view Kerry more favorably than those who did not see the debate (56% vs. 48%), Kerry’s overall favorability rating is little changed from the survey conducted Sept. 11-14 (54% favorable/39% unfavorable).

Compared to his all-time low 50% favorability rating in mid-September, perceptions of the president have improved. Currently, 57% rate George W. Bush favorably, while 40% view him unfavorably; this is slightly better than Kerry’s 53%-41% favorability margin.

Both Dick Cheney and John Edwards enter Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate with generally favorable overall ratings, though the vice president’s unfavorable marks are significantly higher than those of his less well-known challenger. Roughly half of registered voters rank both Cheney (48%) and Edwards (50%) favorably. But 41% rate Cheney unfavorably, compared with just 28% for John Edwards. Nearly a quarter of voters (22%) say they do not know enough about Edwards to offer an opinion.

One-word Impressions

When asked to describe in a single word the impression each candidate made in the debates, both Bush and Kerry received a mix of positive and negative remarks. Among voters who watched the debate, half (51%) used positive terms to characterize Kerry’s debate performance, compared with 30% who used negative words. Assessments of Bush’s debate performance are more mixed (37% positive, 47% negative).

The positive words most frequently used to describe Bush’s debate performance were general assessments like “honest” (33 mentions) and “strong” (23 mentions). Positive one-word descriptions of Kerry, by contrast, seem more directly related to his debate performance; 47 respondents say Kerry was “confident,” by far the most frequently used word to describe his performance. Other frequently mentioned words for Kerry are “prepared” (25 mentions) and “intelligent” (19 mentions).

A number of negative assessments were provided, and there is a clear pattern to these responses. One-word evaluations of Bush ­ such as “defensive” and “nervous” ­ appear to be more reflective of his debate performance. Negative assessments of Kerry ­ “arrogant,” “wishy-washy,” and “indecisive” are the leading mentions ­ seem to be more general assessments of his character rather than specific descriptions of his debate performance.

Bush Support Strong, Positive

As has been the case throughout the campaign, President Bush’s support is stronger and more positive than is Kerry’s. Strong Bush supporters outnumber moderate supporters by nearly three-to-one (35% strong support, 12% moderate support). By comparison, 24% of Kerry’s supporters back him strongly, while 17% support him only moderately.

Similarly, Bush’s supporters overwhelmingly say they are voting for him, rather than against Kerry (76% for, 20% against Kerry). By contrast, Kerry’s vote remains largely an anti-Bush vote. A majority of Kerry’s supporters continue to say their vote is more against Bush (56%) than for Kerry (37%).

The pattern of support for the candidates across different demographic groups is little changed from last week’s survey (see demographic table, p. 11). Bush continues to lead among men (53%-37%), while running about even among women (43% Bush, 45% Kerry). Young voters and independents continue to divide their support about equally.

Bush continues to run well among white Catholics, white evangelical Protestants, and voters in the South and Midwest. Kerry has shored up his support among African Americans (84% now vs. 73% last week), and is doing as well among conservative and moderate Democrats (81%-11%) as Bush is among moderate to liberal Republicans (80%-7%).

Certain Voters vs. Swing Voters

As the race now stands, 42% of registered voters say they are certain to vote for Bush, while 35% are certain to vote for Kerry. About one-in-ten (9%) say they are undecided. The number of swing
voters ­ those who are undecided or are still not certain of their choice ­ has edged downward since September. Today, 22% of registered voters fall into the swing category, compared with 25% in mid-September. Among those most likely to vote, 17% are swing voters.

The size of the swing vote varies among groups in the population. More women than men are not yet certain of their vote (26% vs. 18%), and the same is true for people with a high school education versus the college educated (27% vs. 18%).

Relatively few white evangelicals are uncertain (14%) compared with white Catholics and mainline Protestants (27%, 26%). People living in the so-called “battleground states” also apt to be certain about their choices at this point in the campaign (only 16% of those in battleground states are swing voters, compared with 24% of those in Republican states and 28% in Democratic states).

Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans express great certainty about their vote choices (only 11% and 6%, respectively, fall in the swing-voter category). But other partisans are more unsettled: 22% of conservative and moderate Democrats are not yet certain, as are 27% of moderate to liberal Republicans. Not surprisingly, a relatively high proportion of independents fall into the swing category (30%).

Candidate Images Unchanged

Despite being widely perceived as the debate winner, John Kerry’s overall image has not improved. The percentage viewing the Democratic challenger favorably is unchanged from mid-September (53% now, 54% Sept 11-14) and Kerry continues to trail Bush on most key issues and personal qualities by large margins. President Bush is seen as more honest, a stronger leader, and as better able to protect the nation against terror attacks. Overall favorability ratings of George W. Bush, which reached a low of 50% in mid-September, have risen to 57% in the post-debate survey.

The issue of health care continues to be a strong point for John Kerry, and he also holds a small 46% to 40% lead over the president with respect to who can best improve the nation’s economy. Despite his strong debate performance, Kerry has not shaken the impression that he vacillates on issues too much. Just under half (48%) say they believe John Kerry “changes his mind too much to be a good commander in chief,” while 38% disagree.

This view is reflected in other candidate ratings as well. By a 51% to 37% margin President Bush is rated as the candidate who would use better judgment in a crisis, and by three-to-one (68% to 23%) voters say Bush is the candidate willing to take a stand, even if it is unpopular.

Debate Point-Counterpoint

More generally, the criticisms lodged by the candidates during the debates do not appear to have had a major impact on overall voter impressions. Most voters (51%) reject the idea that Bush is “too inflexible” in his thinking about foreign policy ­ a charge made by Kerry during the debates ­ while about four-in-ten (39%) disagree.

Voters are divided over whether Bush has made “major misjudgments” on Iraq and the war on terror ­ 47% say he has, while 47% believe he has not. And there is a similar split on the question of whether Kerry would give America’s allies too much say in U.S. foreign policy decisions: 39% think Kerry would give the allies too much say, while slightly more (43%) say he would not.

As expected, there are wide partisan gaps in reactions to debate criticisms made by Bush and Kerry. Voters who watched the debate do not differ markedly from those who did not, indicating that the claims made during the debate did not fundamentally change voters’ perceptions of the candidates.

The War in Iraq

The war in Iraq remains a vulnerability for the president, but Kerry has yet to take advantage of it. Only about a third of voters (35%) believe Bush has a clear plan for bringing the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion, a rating that has been virtually unchanged throughout the year.

But Kerry has yet to convince voters that he provides a viable alternative. Just 26% of voters believe Kerry has a clear plan for how to deal with Iraq. Moreover, Kerry continues to trail the president in terms of who can best handle the situation in Iraq today ­ 50% say Bush would make better decisions about Iraq than Kerry, while only 40% say the reverse.

The continuing violence in Iraq has not affected public opinion on the conflict. Half of Americans say the decision to go to war was the right one, while 39% say it was wrong. In September, the public backed the decision to go to war by 53%-39%.

Since last month, there has been a modest decline in the number of Americans who say the U.S. is winning the war on terrorism; 46% say that now, compared with 52% in early September. On balance, however, the public continues to say the U.S. is winning rather than losing the war on terrorism (by 46%-31%).

Debate Interest High

Overall, 69% of voters say they watched the first Bush-Kerry debate. That compares with 63% who watched the first debate between Bush and Al Gore in early October 2000. Four-in-ten voters (41%) say they watched the entire debate, up from 32% four years ago.

Voters who are locked into their choice of candidates watched the debate in higher numbers than did swing voters. And significantly fewer swing voters than committed voters stayed with the debate through to the end. Just 29% of swing voters watched the entire debate, compared with 45% of certain Bush voters and 42% of committed Kerry voters.

The perception that Kerry won the debate is widely shared. By five-to-one, swing voters who watched the debate (60%-12%) say Kerry prevailed. More than a quarter of committed Bush supporters (28%) also believe Kerry won the debate, while a narrow majority (52%) think that Bush won. Kerry voters almost unanimously believe that their candidate won the debate.

The vice presidential debate provides an opportunity for the candidates to define their image with voters, especially with swing voters who are less familiar with them. About a quarter of swing voters (27%) do not know enough about Cheney to hold an opinion, and roughly four-in-ten (42%) swing voters are unable to rate John Edwards.