Poll: Bush Holds Slim Lead

GENERIC John Kerry and George Bush over presidential seal and flag AP / CBS

As Campaign 2004 heads into its final two weeks, Senator John Kerry's perceived wins over President George W. Bush in the three presidential debates – including the most recent one - have narrowed the Presidential race and underscored the sharp divisions in how voters (who are paying much more attention than usual in Presidential campaigns) see the choices before them.

But the race remains little changed from where it stood before the third debate: today, 47% of likely voters nationwide would choose the Bush-Cheney ticket while 45% back Kerry and running mate Senator John Edwards. This is a large difference from before the debates began, when Bush led by nine points, but not much changed from last week.


CHOICE FOR PRESIDENT
(Likely voters)


Now
Bush-Cheney
47%
Kerry-Edwards
45%
Nader-Camejo
2%

Before 3rd debate
Bush-Cheney
48%
Kerry-Edwards
45%
Nader-Camejo
2%

Before 1st debate
Bush-Cheney
51%
Kerry-Edwards
42%
Nader-Camejo
2%

Among all registered voters, not just likely voters, the national race is exactly tied, with Bush at 45% and Kerry at 45%. In a two-way race without Ralph Nader on the ballot, Bush leads Kerry by one point among likely voters nationwide, 47% to 46%.

About half – 46% - of likely voters say they are deciding how to vote mainly based on national security issues, and this group strongly favors Bush. Half are voting either mainly on economic issues or both economics and national security equally -- and that group heavily favors Kerry. 37% of all voters say they will vote mainly on economic issues, and 15% will consider both equally.

MORE IMPORTANT IN VOTE FOR PRESIDENT IS…
(Likely voters)

National security
46%
Economic issues
37%
Both equally
15%

Underscoring the division in the electorate and what many voters see as a more negative campaign than usual, both candidates are viewed more unfavorably than favorably by voters. For both men, these ratings are mostly unchanged from last week.

VIEWS OF THE CANDIDATES
Kerry
Favorable
39%
Unfavorable
44%
Undecided/Haven't heard enough
16%

Bush
Favorable
43%
Unfavorable
45%
Undecided/Haven't heard enough
12%

And while most of the coveted uncommitted voters remaining are moderates, neither candidate has been able to claim that mantle for himself: most voters see Kerry as a liberal – a tag Bush has been using for Kerry in recent stump speeches - and see Bush as a conservative.

THE ECONOMY AND JOBS

Two weeks before Election Day most voters see the country as seriously off on the wrong track. 57% of voters now say things in the U.S. are on the wrong track – seven points higher than earlier this month.

DIRECTION OF COUNTRY
(Registered voters)

Now
Right track
39%
Wrong track
57%

10/2004
Right track
41%
Wrong track
50%

9/2004
Right track
43%
Wrong track
52%

Views of the four-year trend in local employment are more negative than positive. 43% of voters say the number of jobs in their community has gone down over the past four years, while 21% say the number has increased.

Many voters do not think the policies of the Bush Administration are helping the situation. 49% of voters say the current administration's polices are decreasing the number of jobs in the U.S., while a quarter say they are increasing jobs, and 21% say they are having no effect.

THE POLICIES OF THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION ARE …
(Registered voters)

Increasing jobs 23%
Decreasing jobs 49
Having no effect 21

Still, fewer voters are concerned about losing their job now than they were just last month. 20% are very concerned about losing their job, down from 29% in September. 54% of voters now say they are not at all concerned that they or someone in their household will lose their job.

Overall, many voters – 44% - say their family's financial situation is about the same as it was four years ago. One-third of voters say their family is better off, and 23% now say they are worse off.

Many have argued that the Bush administration's tax cuts have gone to
the wealthiest Americans and a majority of voters in this poll appear to agree. 60% say the Bush administration tax cuts mostly benefited the rich, only 8% say they benefited the middle class, and even fewer say they benefited the poor. 24% say the cuts benefited all groups.

BUSH ADMINISTRATION TAX CUTS BENEFITED…
(Registered voters)

Rich 60%
Middle Class 8
Poor 2
Everyone 24

In addition, 44% of voters say they have not been affected by the administration's tax cuts. 28% say their taxes have gone up, while 24% say they have gone down. Those with the highest incomes are more likely to say their taxes have gone down. These opinions are similar to what they were in September 2003.

Kerry continues to have the advantage over Bush when it comes to voters' belief that he understands their problems. However, neither candidate is perceived by a majority of voters as sharing their priorities for the country.

Nearly two-thirds of voters say Kerry is more interested in protecting the interests of ordinary Americans as opposed to large corporations, while about six in ten think Bush is more likely to protect the interests of corporations.

WHOSE INTERESTS WILL THE CANDIDATE PROTECT?
(Registered voters)


Kerry
Ordinary Americans
65%
Large corporations
21%

Bush
Ordinary Americans
33%
Large corporations
59%

Economic perceptions are tied to vote choice. Of the 46% of registered voters who think the economy is in bad shape, most are planning to vote for Kerry this November. Voters who think the economy is good (53% of them) are solidly backing Bush.

But voters are somewhat dubious as to whether they are getting a true picture of the state of the U.S. economy from either candidate. 42% of voters say Kerry is describing the state of the economy accurately when he talks about it, but slightly more – 44% - think he is making the economy sound worse than it really is. Just 35% think Bush is describing the condition of the economy accurately and 59% think he is making it sound better than it really is. This has not changed since last week.

Looking ahead, voters are not necessarily optimistic about the direction of the U.S. economy. 34% of voters say the economy is getting worse. Only 24% say the economy is getting better, and four in 10 say it is staying the same.

THE CANDIDATES AND DOMESTIC ISSUES

Kerry gained slightly on at least one of the domestic issues discussed in the debates. 61% of voters now think if Kerry is elected President he will make sure Social Security benefits will be there for them, up from 57% before the three debates. 49% of voters think Bush is not likely to keep Social Security there for them.

Neither candidate, however, is viewed as someone who will make a significant impact on health care costs. Just over half of voters expect no change in their health care costs regardless of who is elected. Still, more voters expect their health care to be more affordable if Kerry is elected than if Bush is; and by a double-digit margin, voters think their health care will be less affordable if Bush wins in November than if Kerry does.

Many voters say the policies of the Bush administration have caused prescription drugs costs to rise: 47% say so (including 56% of seniors), while just 11% say the policies have decreased those costs. About one quarter say the policies of the current administration have had no effect on the cost of prescription drugs. Almost one in five aren't sure.

Voters have seen the two candidates differently on some other measures throughout the campaign. More voters now than before the debates think Kerry says what he really believes, but six in ten still think he says mainly what people want to hear, and Kerry continues to trail Bush on this question. Half now think Kerry is able to admit a mistake, up from 43% who said so before the first debate. Views of Bush remain largely unchanged.

TERRORISM

Unlike voters' criticisms on domestic policies, the Bush administration receives credit for fighting terrorism, and the President himself receives his highest job approval ratings from voters in this area (55% in this poll). By almost two to one, voters think the administration's policies on terrorism have made the U.S. safer rather than less safe from terrorism. 52% of voters believe Bush's terrorism policies have made the U.S. safer, while 29% think they have caused the U.S. to be less safe.

BUSH ADMINISTRATION'S TERRORISM POLICIES HAVE MADE U.S.:
(Registered voters)

Safer 52%
Less safe 29

Views on this are highly partisan. 87% of Republicans think Bush's policies have made the U.S. safer, but 52% of Democrats think they have made the U.S. less safe. Independents are more likely to think those policies have made the U.S. safer than unsafe.

Terrorism is one area in which the President commands a lead over John Kerry. By 43% to 30%, more voters have a lot of confidence in Bush's ability to make the right decisions when it comes to protecting the country from terrorism than say the same for Kerry. However, earlier this month 52% of voters expressed a lot of confidence in Bush's ability to deal with terrorism; in that same poll 39% had a lot of confidence in Kerry.

The candidates are more competitive when it comes to the broader assessment of their ability to deal with international crises, although the President still has an edge. Bush's approval ratings in foreign policy have been low for over a year (43% of voters approve in this poll); still, 46% of voters have confidence in Bush's ability to handle an international crisis, while 42% have confidence in Kerry.

THE WAR IN IRAQ

Voters voice significant criticism of the administration's long term planning in Iraq. By over two to one, voters think the administration did a poor job planning for what would happen in Iraq as a result of the war.

ADMINISTRATION'S PLANNING FOR POST-WAR IRAQ
(Registered voters)

Good job 29%
Poor job 64

But that has not yet left George W. Bush at a disadvantage with voters compared with Kerry on Iraq. Most voters think neither candidate has a plan for Iraq, and only small numbers of voters have a lot of confidence either will be able to bring the war to a successful conclusion. Still, more voters credit Bush than Kerry with having a plan for Iraq, and being able to resolve the situation there.

The overall assessment of the Iraq war continues to be fairly pessimistic -- many disapprove of U.S. action there, and evaluations of the current situation are negative. Voters are divided as to whether the U.S. did the right thing by taking military action against Iraq. 50% think that was the right thing to do, while 46% think the U.S. ought to have stayed out of Iraq.

U.S. ACTION AGAINST IRAQ:
(Registered voters)

Right thing
50%
Should have stayed out
46%

Current views of the situation in Iraq are more negative than positive, with 43% of voters saying things are going well there, and 55% saying things are going badly.

HOW ARE THINGS IN IRAQ GOING FOR U.S.?
(Registered voters)

Well
43%
Badly
55%

Voters do not think Iraq posed an immediate threat to the U.S.; 35% think Iraq was a threat to the U.S. that required immediate military action, but even more, 62%, think it was not an immediate threat or not a threat at all. These views affect overall support for U.S. action against Iraq: voters who think Iraq was not an immediate threat think the U.S. ought to have stayed out of Iraq, while those who think Iraq presented an immediate threat believe taking military action was right.

Voters are also divided as to whether the war in Iraq is part of the broader war on terrorism. About half think it is, but an equal number think it is not.

IS WAR IN IRAQ PART OF WAR ON TERRORISM?
(Registered voters)

Yes, major part 38%
Yes, minor part 10
No, not a part 48

There is somewhat more consensus that Saddam Hussein was not involved in the 9/11 attacks against the U.S. 30% think he was, but 61% think he was not.

Voters' views about Iraq's involvement in 9/11 and the war against terrorism are strongly tied to candidate support in the presidential race. Those who see Iraq as part of the war against terrorism, or who think Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks, are supporting George W. Bush. Voters who think Saddam was not involved, or who don't view the war as part of a broader terrorism war, are supporting John Kerry.

THE VOTE AND THE VOTERS

The third debate helped the President solidify his already-strong support from his voters. 70% now say they are firmly with President Bush, up from 64% last week. The percent of Bush's backers who have reservations about him has also fallen.

Just under half of Kerry's voters describe their backing for the Senator as strong, unchanged since last week. Compared to the President, Kerry has fewer strong supporters; he continues to derive about one-quarter of his backing from anti-Bush voters.

85% of likely voters – and the vast majority of each candidate's supporters - say their mind is made up about a choice for President. The total number of uncommitted voters – those with no choice at all in the race, or who have a choice but could still change their minds – has shrunk a bit since last week.

Kerry's performance in the third debate appears to have helped him with the women's vote. He now leads among women by eight percentage points, after trailing among them heading into the final debate. (In a CBS News national panel of uncommitted voters who watched the debate last week and recorded their reactions in real-time, women responded very positively when Kerry discussed topics such as equal pay and health care.) In 2000 Al Gore beat Bush among women by eleven points, and keeping this edge is important for any Democrat seeking the White House.

However, at the same time Bush has increased his lead among men, and now gets a majority of their support; men are a bit more likely than women to say they will be voting mainly on national security, the issue on which Bush holds a sizable lead overall.

Bush captures more Democrats from Kerry than Kerry takes Republicans from Bush. Kerry leads among Independent voters, and moderates. The two candidates are tied among seniors. Voters who are married, suburban voters, and those who attend church every week are solidly in Bush's camp in this poll.

THE 2004 CAMPAIGN

Voters see this year's presidential campaign as interesting and more important than past presidential campaigns, but many also say it has been more negative than usual. Before the first presidential debate, Kerry was more likely to be seen as on the offensive, but now both candidates are seen as waging a negative campaign, spending more time attacking their opponent rather than explaining what they would do as president.

The Negative Campaign, Issues and the Debates

By nearly four to one, voters continue to think this year's campaign has been more negative than positive when compared to the past. 44% say this campaign is about the same as previous ones. More voters say the campaign is negative than said so in 2000 or in 1996.

COMPARED TO PAST CAMPAIGNS, THIS YEAR'S CAMPAIGN IS…
(Registered voters)

More positive 13%
More negative 41
About the same 44

About six in ten voters say each candidate has been spending more time in the campaign attacking his opponent, and just over one-third say each has been explaining what he would do as President.

For the first time in this campaign, Bush is seen by a majority of voters as spending most of his time attacking his opponent, up 12 points from before the first presidential debate.

The issues voters most want to hear the candidates address continue to be the economy and jobs (20%), the war in Iraq (18%) and health care (15%).

Both Kerry and Bush are more likely now than before the first debate to be viewed as talking about those issues. 64% now say at least one candidate is talking about the issues they care about, compared with 56% before the first presidential debate.

Only 9% of registered voters say the debates changed their mind about whom to vote for on Election Day, however. But those whose minds did change are more likely to vote for Kerry over Bush. Independents are more likely than Democrats and Republicans to have changed their minds after the debates.

As they did after the two previous presidential debates, voters think Kerry did the best job in the final debate, by 49% to 28%.

Interest in the Campaign

Just over two weeks before the election, nine in ten voters are paying attention to the presidential campaign, including six in ten who are paying a lot of attention. The level of interest in the campaign intensified after the debates: before the first presidential debate took place, 50% said they were paying a lot of attention to the presidential campaign.

The amount of attention voters are now paying to the campaign is similar to this point in the campaign in 1992, the only other election in the past 25 years which has matched the level of interest found so far this year. Even though they view it as a negative campaign, 77% of voters say this year's campaign is interesting.

And nearly eight in ten voters say this presidential campaign is more important than past elections.

PRESIDENT BUSH

Just over two weeks before the election, President Bush's overall approval rating remains under 50%, as it has been since mid-September. 44% of Americans now approve of Bush's handling his job as President, while 48% disapprove.

Bush's approval ratings for his handling of foreign policy and the economy are at 41% and 42%, respectively, both slightly down since early October. Bush's approval ratings on Iraq and terrorism are unchanged from last week, and his approval rating on terrorism remains his strongest. Assessments of President Bush are similar among registered voters on all measures.

BUSH APPROVAL RATINGS
(All Americans)


Overall
Approve
44%
Disapprove
48%

Foreign policy
Approve
41%
Disapprove
54%

Economy
Approve
42%
Disapprove
53%

Iraq
Approve
42%
Disapprove
54

Terrorism
Approve
55%
Disapprove
38

This year's presidential election inevitably invokes memories of the 2000 election, and opinion on that election is almost as divided as is vote intention in this year's contest. 50% of registered voters say Bush legitimately won the presidency in 2000, but 45% say he did not.

Aside from the expected party differences, there are also significant gender and race differences on this question. 49% of women voters say Bush did not won legitimately, while 55% of men say he did. Most white voters think Bush's 2000 victory was legitimate, but eight in 10 black voters say it was not.

The Vice-Presidential Candidates

38% of voters are still unable to form an opinion of Democratic Vice-presidential candidate John Edwards. Those with an opinion are narrowly divided, 32% favorable to 30% not. Voters are similarly divided in their views about Vice President Cheney, and one-fourth are undecided – though this is the highest favorable rating Cheney has received during campaign 2004.

EVALUATIONS OF CONGRESS

38% of Americans (and the same percentage of registered voters) approve of Congress' handling of its job. 46% of Americans disapprove. Congress' approval rating is now lower than it was at the beginning of this year, and also lower than two years ago.

More than half of registered voters say Congress accomplished less during 2003 and 2004 than it usually does during a typical two-year period. Just 16% think it accomplished more. In 2002, 25% said Congress accomplished more.

Majorities of Democrats and Independents say this Congress has accomplished less, as do 40% of Republicans.

The two parties will fight over the control of Congress on Election Day. Although it is unlikely to be reflected in the final seat outcome in the U.S. House, this poll suggests that the Democratic Party may have gained some ground going into the election: among likely voters, 45% say they would vote for the Democratic candidate in their district, and 39% would vote Republican.

2004 HOUSE VOTE: WILL VOTE FOR…
(Likely Voters)

Republican candidate 39%
Democratic candidate 45

51% of registered voters think their own representative in Congress deserves reelection, while a quarter say it's time to give a new person a chance. One in five voters doesn't know one way or the other.

A majority of likely voters who say Congress has accomplished less in the past two years than in a typical two-year period are voting for the Democratic candidate in their district over the Republican, 54% to 29%. Voters who think this Congress accomplished more or just as much are more likely to vote for the Republican candidate in their district.


This poll was conducted among a nationwide sample of 1048 adults, interviewed by telephone October 14-17, 2004, including 931 registered voters. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus three percentage points for registered voters and for the total sample. Each registered voter is assigned a probability of voting, which is used to calculate the likely voter results. The sum of these probabilities is the effective number of likely voters. The effective number of likely voters is 678. The margin of error for the number of likely voters could be plus or minus four points.

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

For information on how we define "likely voters," click here.

  • Joel Roberts

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