TOPICS > Politics

Pollsters Look at Issues Important to Voters

July 29, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Next, what the opinion polls suggest about what Kerry might need to talk about, and to Terence Smith.

TERENCE SMITH: Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, has been looking into that. He joins me now. Andy, welcome. Based on your polls and others, how does the public see John Kerry on the eve of this very important speech, and what does he have to accomplish tonight?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, the most important thing, Terry, is he has to get himself better known. The ultimate irony in this campaign is people are paying more attention than usual, but they know less about John Kerry than they usually do about a challenger.

Two polls found only 15 percent in this month saying they know a lot about John Kerry. Typically aspirants for the presidency in this month have only 24, 25, 26 percent; he’s behind the curve, and in a high-stakes election where people are paying attention. He’s got to break through.

TERENCE SMITH: Why would that be true?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I think he’s had a hard news season to break through.

TERENCE SMITH: Meaning a very busy news season?

ANDREW KOHUT: Busy. The news out of Iraq, the important things that are going on in the world has made it difficult for a challenging candidate to get at the top of the newscast and get on the front page.

TERENCE SMITH: How did they see him when you ask questions, you and others, about John Kerry? What are the images and descriptions that come forth?

ANDREW KOHUT: You know, when you ask open-ended questions, you don’t get much. You get, he’s a good guy. He’s a veteran and just brief notions of his biography. When the polls probe, as the AP poll did recently, they found some things that are definitely making an impression.

The positive one is he’s intelligent, experienced, he’s been around the track. The negative one is the flip-flop issues. Most polls have people, the respondents saying that perhaps Kerry changes his mind too much.

TERENCE SMITH: Where did they get that notion?

ANDREW KOHUT: Probably from the campaign, either from advertising or the number one descriptor of Kerry is he’s rich. 85 percent, he’s a rich guy.

But 90 percent think that Bush is the rich guy. They know about his background.

TERENCE SMITH: As far as I know, that’s not a crime. I guess he’d admit to that. What about other issues like the economy, health care, things like that? Traditional Democratic issues?

ANDREW KOHUT: There people have hunches about Kerry. They make the hunches they would associate with a Democratic candidate. He’s probably better than Bush on health care. In fact, he’s got a good margin on health care which would suggest he’s getting through some.

What he’s seen as better on education, which has been a Bush strength, by the way. Certainly most recently the public says they have more confidence in Kerry on the economy and on jobs.

The question, though, for tonight is to get some specific policy ideas, some notions that people can associate with Kerry to stick on the bones of those sketchy ideas about Kerry’s abilities.

TERENCE SMITH: Because they don’t have those right now?

ANDREW KOHUT: They certainly do not.

TERENCE SMITH: Or at least they’re not clear. Do they associate him with any particular ideas or causes in his 19 years in the Senate?

ANDREW KOHUT: Very few. I mean, there’s not much notions about, much ideas about what senators do unless they’re… they have a really distinctive career. The one thing that has stuck are these questions about his going back and forth on issues.

The big concern for Kerry, the big problem that he has to deal with is his image as a strong leader. Here Bush has a very big advantage. The CBS poll last week found 52 percent of their respondents saying they might be uneasy with Kerry if there was an international crisis.

Even 24 percent of Democrats said that. So the leadership image is a real important mission.

TERENCE SMITH: So he has to confront that; he has to discuss it?

ANDREW KOHUT: In an era in which the American public feels it’s under threat, this is a prerequisite of the presidency.

TERENCE SMITH: Does he also have to project a personality with which the public may not be too familiar? I mean, would it help to have a little fun tonight and perhaps look as though he’s enjoying himself?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, he gets good favorability ratings, but his likeability, personality ratings aren’t really all that strong. I mean, he’s not seen as inspiring, and he’s not… doesn’t have a jocular, easygoing personality, but then again this is not a popularity contest.

We’ve had presidents elected, Richard Nixon, for example, wasn’t a warm and cuddly guy. You can make it… this is not a make-or-break kind of quality, but it would help if he could show a little bit of his humanity, a little bit of his character to the public so that they have some notion about him.

You know in the end, what they do, they make their judgments not on the basis of a sum total of pluses and minuses but just an overall feeling about his abilities and his… the kind of man he is. People said, a taste… he has to show a taste of his character.

TERENCE SMITH: They spoke, the delegates, of credibility and of conviction and commitment.

ANDREW KOHUT: All of those are things that he’s got to deal with tonight.

TERENCE SMITH: Andy Kohut, thanks very much.

ANDREW KOHUT: You’re welcome.