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Polling Numbers Still Too Close To Call

November 1, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: A final weekend of coast-to-coast polling has left the presidential contest in true toss-up territory. But what is driving, or not driving, the numbers we will finally see tomorrow night officially?

Here to offer some insight into those polls: Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Andy, we’ve been watching this for a long time now. It’s fish or cut bait time. We’re watching especially nine battleground states. Any clues?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, the battleground states, the polls there don’t tell us very much. In the smaller battleground states, they don’t allow for rigorous enough polls. In the bigger battleground states, there are big polls and they’re adequate, but they’re all showing the race about even.

And there are five states: Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. And as I looked at these states this morning, I looked at the polls, I couldn’t make a decision. I could come to the conclusion that Bush is going to win them all; I could come to the decision that Kerry is going to win them all; or there’s going to be some kind of split.

But the polls don’t say much. In Ohio, for example, Gallup has Kerry ahead by a four-point margin. The Plain Dealer has Bush ahead by a four-point margin. They both have the same sample size, they’re both are pretty well done. It’s just hard to choose, because the public isn’t certain, and it’s least certain in these swing states.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds as bad as the national polling, which is kind of also everybody is within the margin of error as well.

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, the national polls have actually settled down. They’re not bouncing all over the place. They’re all bunched around the mean. They’re all essentially tied. Most of the polls that have an advantage, it’s a one-, two-, or three-point non-statistical advantage for President Bush.

There was one poll that came out today, the Fox poll, that had a two-point margin for Sen. Kerry. But, again, you can’t draw much from that, other than they conclude that it’s going to be a fairly even division of the vote, depending upon turnout.

GWEN IFILL: But we just heard John Edwards say in Kwame’s piece that if you drive by polls and see long lines of young people that’s going to help John Kerry.

We have heard a lot of reports about early voting in many states, where people have been lined up to vote in advance in big states like Florida and Wisconsin and Minnesota that are battlegrounds. What can we read into that? Who does that hurt or help? Any way to know?

ANDREW KOHUT: Certainly the young voter thing, if anything, is going to help Sen. Kerry. There are more young voters in our likely voter sample. There were 14 percent 18 to 30. Four years ago, it was 12 percent. It was 11 percent in ’96.

The percentage of first-time voters, irrespective of age, is up. Both groups tend to favor Sen. Kerry. The question is, the youth vote has been a little bit unstable. It hasn’t been as overwhelmingly Kerry as you might expect. In some cases, it’s been just a small margin for Kerry. So it’s not so certain, but I would say that, overall, higher turnout and new registration breaks in favor of the Democrats, breaks in favor of Kerry.

GWEN IFILL: How do you measure– or is it possible to measure– voter enthusiasm, the likelihood that the new registrants will actually show up, or the likelihood that people who are firm supporters of the president will show up?

ANDREW KOHUT: That’s a complex question. We find 87 percent of our respondents, both Bush and Kerry, equally saying this is an especially important election, up 20 points from four years ago.

And they’re tied. But when we asked people, “Are you a strong supporter of your candidate,” Bush has a clear advantage. Kerry supporters are not nearly as avid. But Kerry supporters are very opposed to President Bush.

And that may offset their lack of enthusiasm for Sen. Kerry. So I’d say that’s the toss-up. The real advantage for the Republicans is, they’re better habitual voters. And what this is going to come down to is whether the equal enthusiasm of the two sides can overcome the Republican advantage on getting voting on a more regular basis.

GWEN IFILL: Well, one of the interesting and kind of enduring splits which keep popping up is the gender split, and the split between married people and unmarried people.

ANDREW KOHUT: Yeah. The gender one is particularly interesting. In the polls where President Bush has little lead, his… Sen. Kerry’s support among women is not as strong as it was for Gore four years ago. He carries women, but not by that… you don’t have a symmetrical gender gap where women are voting as strongly for Kerry as men are voting for Bush.

In other polls, where it’s closer, you do have that symmetrical gender gap. The marital gap is as ever. Married people tend to vote more Republican. Single people tend to vote more Democratic. And we see the same thing that we saw four years ago.

GWEN IFILL: We had a discussion on this program last week about religious voters, and in particular Catholics. One of our guests said the Catholic vote is something to watch. So if we’re watching the Catholic vote, John Kerry would be the first Catholic president in a generation, and only the second one ever. What does it tell us?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, he’s getting a little more support than Kerry got. Bush carried the white Catholic vote at least four years ago. And the white Catholic vote is leaning….

GWEN IFILL: You mean that Kerry is getting more support than Gore got.

ANDREW KOHUT: Than Gore got; that’s right. So it’s a lot closer. It is one of the swing votes. White Catholics and women are certainly important swing votes. Of course, white evangelical Protestants are the cornerstone of President Bush’s election constituency.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any way to gauge the “get out the vote” effort on the ground in these last few days in polling?

ANDREW KOHUT: Oh, yeah. We found 40 percent of the people that we interviewed said they had been called or personally visited. That was Wednesday through Saturday. It’s probably higher today. Now people living in swing states, it was closer to 60 percent. So the “get out the vote” effort is pretty rigorous.

GWEN IFILL: Turning out their lights for the late trick-or- treaters by the end.

ANDREW KOHUT: Perhaps. But it was pretty evenly divided between people who had been contacted by Bush and Kerry. Both ground wars are up and running at about an equal pace at this point.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any way to know at this late date whether it’s true that there is any one left who is truly undecided?

ANDREW KOHUT: I think there are people who are undecided. We have about 6 percent in the polls. What we find — we look up people’s voting records. We found out half the undecideds at this point in the game don’t vote. When we make our estimates, we throw away half of the undecideds.

Gallup is making the assumption that the undecideds are going to go heavily to Sen. Kerry. Our statistical model suggests it’s a little more even, perhaps with an edge to Sen. Kerry, but nothing decisive. These are projections, not poll measurements, in a question-and- answer kind of way.

GWEN IFILL: And so, in reality, we have the real poll tomorrow night.

ANDREW KOHUT: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: Andy Kohut, thanks again.