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Presidential Polling Numbers Show A Close Race

October 15, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Polls taken after each debate showed most voters believed Sen. John Kerry won them. But what impact did the debates have on the race more broadly?

One indication: Just before the first debate, an ABC News/ Washington Post poll of likely voters showed 51 percent supporting or leaning to President Bush; 45 percent supporting or leaning to Sen. Kerry; and 1 percent to Ralph Nader. But their most recent tracking poll, concluded last night, showed President Bush and Sen. Kerry tied at 48 percent with Nader still at 1 percent.

Joining me with some perspective on the post-debate status of this race is Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. Welcome.

You monitor this particular poll and lots of other polls. Is the Washington Post/ABC News poll generally in sync with the others in terms of what impact the debates had on the basic head to head contest?

ANDREW KOHUT: If you look at the major polls, the once I look at, debates transform the race. Gallup had a big Bush lead, CBS had a big Bush lead, Gallup now has plus one for Kerry, CBS has now a plus three for Bush. So essentially we have an even race, maybe with a little momentum for Sen. Kerry.

But I think we have to be very careful about picking up momentum, because there’s still a lot of conflicting attitudes in people’s opinions, and I don’t think we’re going to know for sure, we’re going to have to wait and watch the drift of the polls over the next week or so.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, let’s go underneath those horse race numbers, we had to get those out of the way. What was driving the change in that head to head contest when you looked at people’s attitudes about these candidates?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, it’s what we said when we talked about the history of debates a few weeks ago. We said debates have the biggest effect on unresolved doubts about a candidate’s character. And they had… people had doubts about Kerry, and those doubts have now been resolved positively, not negatively.

His favorability rating before the debates was 39 favorable, 45 unfavorable. It’s now 48-43. He’s made an improvement. These are ABC/Washington Post polls. At the same time, the president’s ratings are a little bit down and just about equal to John Kerry’s. Bush doesn’t have this big advantage. It’s gone away.

MARGARET WARNER: And then go underneath the favorable- unfavorable. What about in terms of the personal qualities that they see in each man?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, Kerry improved his image across the board, in terms of honesty, in terms of being more empathetic, in terms of being clearer on his positions. After the debate — here’s what’s really interesting– after the third debate, Gallup did one of these instants polls, and they said which candidate presented himself more clearly, and Kerry had a 32 percent advantage.

And of course the knock on Kerry was he wasn’t clear, people couldn’t understand what he was saying, he had conflicting positions, so he’s really helped himself in that regard. Where he still lags is on the strong leader dimension, Bush still has a considerable advantage when the polls ask which candidate do you think is the stronger leader.

MARGARET WARNER: President Bush is still…

ANDREW KOHUT: President Bush is still considerably stronger.

MARGARET WARNER: …considerably ahead on the strong leader issue. Let’s go to the issues. What about Iraq and the war on terror, where the president went in with big advantages?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, he still has a big advantage in the war on terrorism. But Iraq is a smaller advantage. But what’s significant in the Washington Post/ABC Poll, for example, the public still says we prefer Bush for dealing with Iraq in the future by a margin of 49 to 42, even though they continue to be highly critical of President Bush’s stewardship of the war in Iraq. So Kerry really hasn’t quite yet made the sale on Iraq. In fact, he hasn’t made it, period.

MARGARET WARNER: In other words he might have made the sale that President Bush isn’t doing a great job, but he hasn’t made the sale that he could do better?

ANDREW KOHUT: That’s certainly the case. We also saw the president’s overall approval ratings decline over the course of the debates. The criticisms that Kerry made in his calm, clear, collected way really stuck. The president now has a 47 percent approval rating. It was 53 percent before the debates began.

MARGARET WARNER: What about on the economy?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, on the economy, the criticisms again did stick, and a larger percentage than we saw prior to the debates say they prefer Sen. Kerry for dealing with the economy and dealing with jobs, and certainly the big margin that he’s had on health care and other domestic issues are there.

The problem for Sen. Kerry is that the public still prefers President Bush on dealing with terrorism and by a big margin.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the shifts that have been seen moving toward Sen. Kerry, are they concentrated in particular demographic groups?

ANDREW KOHUT: The most important shift in the horserace is by gender. When Bush was leading in September, he had the strong… he had the majority support among men, but women were either even in the race or even holding a small… Bush even held a small plurality of women.

Now that Kerry has gained ground, we see he’s polling as well as Gore polled four years ago among women. So we have a symmetrical gender gap, women supporting Kerry as much as men are supporting Bush.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, I notice all these polls talk about “likely voters.” And yet there are these widely disparate predictions about turnout.

How do you, as a pollster, how do you reconcile those? How reliable is the “likely voter” moniker there if people are so unclear about what the turnout is going to be?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I think there’s clarity about higher turnout, probably like 1992, when 55 percent of the voting age population turned out, as opposed to 52 or 50 percent in ’96 and in 2000. But the question is: What’s the composition of the likely vote?

And in some polls, Bush gets a great advantage when it’s narrowed to likely voters, sometimes he gets no advantage, and in our poll and the Gallup Poll unusually Sen. Kerry does a little bit better on a likely voter base.

This is an open question and one of the things we’ll be looking at is not only preferences but who’s going to turn out.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Andy, thanks very much.