'04 Election Could Be 2000 Redux

Campaign buttons for both parties, over the capitol and money. AP / CBS

A CBS News/New York Times Poll shows the election year starting with a White House race that closely resembles the close race of 2000: if the November Presidential election were held today, 45% of voters say they would vote for the Democratic candidate and 43% would vote to re-elect George W. Bush. Late last month, the President held a 49% to 40% edge. The standing today is similar to what it was in November 2003, before the capture of Saddam Hussein.

2004 ELECTION VOTE
(Registered voters):

Now:
President Bush
43%
Democratic candidate
45%

12/2003:
President Bush
49%
Democratic candidate
40%

11/2003:
President Bush
41%
Democratic candidate
43%

And much of this sentiment seems already locked in place, suggesting the coming year could see a tight struggle for undecided voters: 63% say their mind is already made up, while 36% say it is too soon to say for sure.

IS YOUR MIND MADE UP?
(Among those naming a choice):

Yes
63%
No, it's too soon
36%

Partisans on both sides are sure of their choice, but Republicans even more so: 73% say their mind is made up, while 66% of Democrats say their decision is final right now.

Most voters – 55% - believe the President will ultimately win the 2004 election. Republican voters are especially optimistic: eight in ten think so. 52% of Democrats think their candidate will win but more than one-third think Bush will.

However, it is still quite early: even with the Democratic primaries and caucuses about to start, voters nationwide are still not tuning in to the race. Only slightly more than one in five is paying a lot of attention.

Even Democratic primary voters nationwide are not particularly tuned in yet. Just 26% of them are paying a lot of attention, and 43% are paying some – much the same levels found among all voters.

The issues for 2004

The economy is still the top issue on the minds of voters during this presidential campaign, but significant numbers of voters want to hear about the war in Iraq, U.S. foreign policy, and health care.

IN CAMPAIGN 2004 THE CANDIDATES SHOULD TALK ABOUT…
(Among registered voters):

The economy/jobs
26%
War/foreign policy
14%
Healthcare/Medicare
11%

26% of registered voters say they would like to hear the presidential candidates talk about the economy and jobs, 14% say the war in Iraq and foreign policy, followed by healthcare and Medicare at 11%.

Voters who mention the economy and jobs as the one issue they would like to hear the candidates discuss say they plan to vote for the Democratic challenger this fall over George W. Bush, by 47% to 36%.

Americans' views of the parties show the Democrats heading into the election year with a slight edge; the GOP's rating has slipped a bit since last month.

And in a year that could see a pitched battle for control of Congress, voters are more likely to prefer divided government than a President and legislature of the same party.

When asked over the last few years, Americans have said they favor divided government. In the 1990's, pluralities supported single party control.

Some of the disputes from four years ago still linger in the minds of many: 54% of voters believe President Bush legitimately won the 2000 contest, but 42% believe he did not. The partisan divide on this is perhaps not surprising: 88% of Republicans say the President won legitimately, while just 27% of Democrats agree.

That feeling may be having a motivating effect on Democrats: 9 out of 10 Democratic voters who believe that the President did not legitimately win say they plan to take part in one of their party's primaries or caucuses this year.

THE DEMOCRATS AND THE 2004 ELECTION

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean is still the clear first choice of Democrats nationwide, named by 24% as their preferred nominee. Retired General Wesley Clark is at 12%, while Rep. Dick Gephardt is at 11%. Dean's support dipped a bit three weeks ago, after the capture of Saddam Hussein, but it has now returned to its mid-December levels.

Gephardt has climbed in Democratic support in this poll since December, while Senator Joe Lieberman's support has been cut in half, to 5% now. More voters are choosing a candidate now as the first official vote looms: the number of undecided voters is at 15% today, down from 24% just a few weeks ago.

CHOICE FOR DEMOCRATIC NOMINEE
(Democratic primary voters)

Now:
Howard Dean
24%
Wesley Clark
12%
Richard Gephardt
11%
John Kerry
7%
Joe Lieberman
5%
John Edwards
5%
Carol Moseley-Braun
4%
Al Sharpton
3%
Dennis Kucinich
1%
Don't Know
15%

12/21-22:
Howard Dean
16%
Wesley Clark
10%
Richard Gephardt
9%
Joe Lieberman
6%
Carol Moseley-Braun
6%
John Edwards
5%
John Kerry
4%
Dennis Kucinich
2%
Al Sharpton
2%
Don't Know
24%

12/14-16:
Howard Dean
23%
Wesley Clark
10%
Joe Lieberman
10%
Richard Gephardt
6%
Al Sharpton
5%
John Kerry
4%
John Edwards
2%
Dennis Kucinich
1%
Carol Moseley-Braun
1%
Don't Know
28%

Ambassador Carol Moseley-Braun left the race on the final day of this poll.

However, in a clear sign that the early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina could still dramatically re-shape the race, voters now backing a candidate are no more certain about their selections than they were three weeks ago -- 74% say their mind is still not made up.

THE NOMINEE AND THE ISSUES

By a margin of more than two to one, Democratic primary voters still would favor a nominee who opposed the Iraq war rather than one who supported it. But many are less concerned about their nominee's stance on the war than they were a few weeks ago. In late December, not long after the capture of Saddam Hussein, one-third of voters said this stance did not matter. Today, 42% say it does not.

Primary voters are more intent on finding a nominee who would roll back most the recent federal tax cuts. Only 24% say this would not matter to them. 44% say they would prefer that the nominee set out to do so, while 23% want the party's standard-bearer to keep most of the cuts in place.

Asked why they are supporting their chosen candidate, voters most often cited their candidate's personal qualities, style and honesty, followed by their stands on the issues, views on the economy, specifically, and belief in their viability in November.

VIEWS OF THE CANDIDATES

Dean, Clark, Gephardt, Kerry and Edwards are all viewed positively by Democratic primary voters.

But only Dean and the former Vice-Presidential nominee Joe Lieberman draw opinions – either positive or negative - from more than half of Democratic primary voters. Every other candidate is still either unknown to, or evokes no opinion from, more than half of voters.

Among all registered voters nationwide, Howard Dean – and most of the other Democratic candidates – do less well. Dean is viewed favorably by 21% of all voters, and unfavorably by 29%.

Of all the Democratic candidates, only John Kerry and Wesley Clark receive more favorable than unfavorable ratings among registered voters nationwide. Yet they – like all the candidates except Joe Lieberman – remain unknown to at least half of all voters.

Religion and the campaign

Many of the Democratic candidates – and the President -- have been discussing their views on religion and its role in their lives. These discussions divide the electorate. 50% of all voters say such religious discussion should not be part of a campaign, while 46% say candidates should openly discuss it.

Democratic primary voters are less interested in hearing about candidates' religious views: 62% of them say it should not be part of the campaign.

So far most voters are satisfied with the way the candidates have broached the subject. Just 21% say one of the candidates has used religion improperly during the campaign, and 62% say no one has done so.

Of those voters who do think one of the candidates has used religion improperly in their campaign, 27% say it is George W. Bush who has done so, and 20% name Howard Dean as the one who has raised the issue improperly. 11% cite the Reverend Al Sharpton.

For detailed information on how CBS News conducts public opinion surveys, click here.


This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 1022 adults, interviewed by telephone January 12-15, 2004. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points. Sampling error for subgroups may be higher.
  • Joel Arak

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