Bush Lead Too Slim To Count

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By Jarrett Murphy, CBSNews.com producer
In a CBS News/New York Times poll out Sunday, President Bush has the support of 49 percent of likely voters to 46 percent for John Kerry.

Forty-nine percent of likely voters think Mr. Bush will win, to 33 percent who bet on Kerry. More voters see the president as strong, a man in tune with their priorities, someone who says what he thinks. Fifty-five percent approve of the president's handling of the war on terrorism.

So the poll seems to be pretty bad news for Kerry, and good news for Mr. Bush.

Is it?

Matthew Dowd, the president's chief pollster, in an e-mail response to CBSNews.com, says the Bush-Cheney campaign's internal polls also indicate the president is up by three points, "and that is what we think it will end up on Election Day."

Since the beginning of September, according to a log of polls maintained by RealClearPolitics, 58 polls have given Mr. Bush a lead and 14 have been a tie. Kerry has led in only five.

Kerry supporters see chinks in the president's armor, however.

In the CBS/NYT survey, Mr. Bush's lead is within the four-point margin of error for likely voters. The same is true of recent Pew, ABC and Newsweek surveys. The Washington Post, FOX News, Reuters/Zogby and American Research Group polls all show a numerical tie.

While Kerry slipped slightly in the most recent Reuters poll, it was Mr. Bush who dropped a point in the Washington Post survey. The Fox poll saw Kerry making inroads among independents and getting more enthusiasm from Democrats.

Potentially more important, Mr. Bush is not breaking the 50 percent mark in many recent surveys — falling short of a benchmark some analysts feel is key for an incumbent president. In the CBS/NYT poll, the president's approval rating, like his poll number, is 49 percent.

"The fact that the president is not at fifty percent I think is a sign of real problems for him," said Kerry's chief pollster, Mark Mellman. He sees undecided voters favoring Kerry.

Frank Newport of the Gallup Poll has described Mr. Bush as being in a "gray zone." Since Harry Truman, the three incumbents who have lost all had approval ratings well below 50 percent. The incumbents who won had approval numbers well above 50 percent. Mr. Bush is at dead center.

The Bush campaign disagrees on the significance of the 50 percent mark.

"Since undecideds are likely to worse-case split their ballots, then being at fifty doesn't bother us at all," Dowd said. "And actual undecideds right now are slightly breaking towards us."

Newsweek and Pew do have Mr. Bush at or above 50.

Newport said historically the challenger gets more of the undecideds but he had no estimate of how they will split this year.

Most recent polls count likely voters, not registered ones. Given the surge in registration, determining who is likely to vote can be tricky. Mellman dubs likely voter models "questionable at best."

If more new voters come out than the pollsters project, that could aid Kerry. The Fox poll gives Kerry a 47-45 percent lead among registered voters. Reuters/Zogby estimates Kerry has a 51-41 percent edge among newly registered voters.

"We have looked at it different ways and we may even present an alternative model that discounts voting history," Newport said in an interview Sunday as his organization wrapped up its final poll of the 2004 race. If there is evidence of a surge of support for Kerry, he said, "It will be picked up."

Whatever voter pool they use, national polls could also be somewhat imprecise to the trends that will actually decide the election — those within battleground states. While these swing states are unlikely to be drastically different from the nation as a whole, in a tight race slight shifts will matter greatly.

"The thing that we can be absolutely certain about is that this is an extremely close race and that every poll I've seen has Kerry ahead in the battleground states," Mellman said.

The American Research Group, for example, has Mr. Bush and Kerry tied at 48 percent nationwide. In swing states, ARG says Kerry leads in New Mexico, Oregon, Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Mr. Bush leads in Iowa. New Hampshire is tied. None of the leads are statistically significant.

If either candidate is planning a dramatic move in the final days of the campaign, almost a quarter of likely voters will not be able to act on it. Twenty percent say they have already voted by mail or early voting, and 3 percent more plan to vote by absentee or early voting before Tuesday. Of those who have already voted, 51 percent say they voted for Mr. Bush.

So far, the only bold stroke in the campaign's final stretch was not by a terrorist, not a candidate. But there was little evidence in the CBS/NYT poll that Osama bin Laden's videotaped message would have an effect.

If external events do not sway them, voters might choose based on the candidates' perceived personal qualities. That would seem to favor Mr. Bush, who is better known and, polls suggest, more likeable.

However, there is evidence in the latest poll — as there has been all along — that Kerry supporters don't need to admire the man to vote for him. Only 41 percent of registered voters view Kerry favorably, and only 42 percent feel he shares their priorities. Yet 46 percent of likely voters plan to cast ballots for him.

One big comfort for Kerry might be that in 2000, polls reported two days before the election tended to show Mr. Bush ahead of Al Gore. On Nov. 6, 2000, ABC News had Mr. Bush up by 4 points, the Washington Post and NBC by three, Gallup by two and Reuters/Zogby by one.

Gore won the popular vote by about 543,000 votes.

CBS News polls went from a 5-point Bush lead on Nov. 5 to a 1-point Gore margin on Nov. 7.
By Jarrett Murphy