Poll: White House Race Tightens Up

GENERIC President Bush and John Kerry AP / CBS

Despite concerns about his handling of Iraq, and an overall approval rating of 42%, George W. Bush is still running neck and neck with Democrat John Kerry as the choice of registered voters. Growing public optimism about the nation's economy has helped lift support for the President.

Kerry is the choice of 45% of registered voters, Bush the choice of 44%. This is a sharp turnaround for the Bush campaign in the span of just one month; in May, Kerry had opened up a wide 8-point lead over Bush. The race has been close since April.

KERRY VS. BUSH: CHOICE IN NOVEMBER
(Registered voters)


Now
John Kerry
45%
George Bush
44%

5/2004
John Kerry
49%
George Bush
41%

4/2004
John Kerry
46%
George Bush
44%

While the campaigns struggle to define themselves and their opponents - often in very personal terms - it appears that each still has a long way to go in appealing to America's voters. Both have failed so far to convince a majority of voters that they share their priorities, could deal well with a crisis or with the economy -- and both candidates evoke more negative than positive opinions from the voting public.

ECONOMIC GAINS

Growing belief that the economy is improving appears to be helping the President. As he did last month, Bush receives support from most voters who think the economy is getting better - but today there are more such voters.

ECONOMIC OUTLOOK AMONG VOTERS
Now
Better
30%
Worse
21%
Same
49%

last month
Better
25%
Worse
30%
Same
44%

Last month 25% of voters said the economy was on the rise; today 30% say so. Kerry has a similarly lopsided lead among those who say the economy is getting worse, but that is now a shrinking portion of the electorate. Last month 30% of voters said the economy was worsening, while today 21% do.
The President is also helped by the return of very strong support from his Republican base. Today 90% of Republican voters say they plan to back Bush in November - a figure more in line with the levels of support the President was used to seeing throughout his tenure in the Oval Office. Last month, in the wake of the Iraqi prison scandals, Bush had slipped a bit among GOPers and 84% were behind him - helping Kerry build what was a large lead.

Kerry does continue to hold a lead among Independents, 44% to 37% for Bush - though the President has cut into that margin: last month Kerry was up 16 points. And the election continues to look like it will come down to a relatively small number of swing voters, because most say their minds are already made up. 74% of those backing either Bush or Kerry have made up their minds. Just 25% say it is still too soon to be sure.

Kerry's image has suffered slightly in the past month: he is now viewed slightly more unfavorably than favorably by voters. Like last month, however, he still elicits no opinion from many - a reminder that Election Day is still far off and many voters have yet to see or hear much about the challenger. This is not unusual: in 1992 Bill Clinton was also unknown to more than one-third of the electorate at this point. George W. Bush - who not surprisingly is far better known - also gets more negative than positive ratings.

OPINIONS OF THE CANDIDATES
(Registered Voters)


Bush
Now
Favorable
39%
Unfavorable
45%
Undecided/Unknown
16%

Last month
Favorable
36%
Unfavorable
47%
Undecided/Unknown
16%

Kerry
Now
Favorable
29%
Unfavorable
35%
Undecided/Unknown
36%

Last month
Favorable
32%
Unfavorable
32%
Undecided/Unknown
35%

As has been the case throughout the campaign, Bush's backers are best described by their fervor for the President, while Kerry's supporters are driven more by their dislike of the opposition than by Kerry himself. 56% of Bush's supporters say they strongly favor Bush, while 32% back him with reservations. Kerry, meanwhile, inspires the strong support of less than one-third of his voters, while 37% are with the Democrat mainly because they dislike George W. Bush.

Over the weekend, the Green Party decided not to give Ralph Nader its nomination this year, making it more difficult for Nader to appear on all state ballots. If he were added to the ballot everywhere, he would hurt Kerry marginally: Bush would have 43% of the vote to Kerry's 42%, with Nader garnering 5%.

The war in Iraq and the economy remain the top issues on the minds of voters. 23% want to hear about the candidates discuss Iraq and 20% want to hear about the economy and jobs. These topics are followed by health care and education.

ISSUES VOTERS WANT TO HEAR CANDIDATES DISCUSS
(Registered Voters)


Now
War in Iraq
23%
Economy and jobs
20%
Health care/Medicare
13%
Education
5%

5/2004
War in Iraq
26%
Economy and jobs
25%
Health care/Medicare
8%
Education
4%

EVALUATIONS OF THE CANDIDATES

The Bush campaign has touted the President as unwavering in his views, and the public has indeed picked up on that: 81% see Bush as someone who takes a position and sticks to it.

But this is not necessarily a positive for Bush: while many voters value resolute decision-making, some see more value in flexibility. One-third of those who think Bush does stick to his positions think this is a bad characteristic in him.

Meanwhile, Kerry has been charged with 'flip-flopping' on the issues, and that charge has stuck: in stark contrast to views of Bush, only 39% of voters think Kerry takes positions and sticks to them; 40% say he does not. One-fifth could not rate him on this attribute.

Those who think he does stick to positions overwhelmingly applaud that characteristic; those who say he does not see it as a bad trait.

Kerry is seen as being much more likely to listen to different points of view: 71% say he does. A smaller majority - 54% - see the President as someone who listens to various points of view. Kerry is seen as more likely to be able to admit mistakes - though neither candidate is seen by most as able to do that. Half of voters think of Bush as someone who cannot admit a mistake.

TRAITS OF THE CANDIDATES
Bush
Listens to different views
54%
Does not listen to different views
42%
Is able to admit mistakes
45%
Is not able
51%

Kerry
Listens to different views
71%
Does not listen to different views
17%
Is able to admit mistakes
46%
Is not able
32%

Recent commercials for both candidates have sought to portray them each as optimistic about the future, and voters have been receptive. 78% say Bush is optimistic, and 70% say this about Kerry. Both are also trusted to keep their word as president.

Bush continues to have an advantage over Kerry on saying what he believes: 58% of voters think Bush says what he believes, compared to just 34% who say the same about Kerry. 55% of voters think Kerry says what people want to hear.

Yet as the campaigns struggle to define themselves and their opponents, neither candidate is seen by voters as sharing their priorities. Only 41% of voters think Bush shares their priorities, and just 42% think Kerry shares their priorities for the country.

Nor has either candidate yet given the public confidence that they could deal well with a crisis. Kerry has still not put the public at ease about this. For Bush, the unease he elicits on this measure is a reversal from earlier this year, when dealing with crises was one of his strongest suits.

54% of voters are uneasy about Bush's approach in handling an international crisis, while 44% have confidence in him. These numbers are virtually the same as they were in April, though down significantly since March.

Kerry does not do much better on this question. Just 33% have confidence in Kerry's handling of an international crisis, while 52% are uneasy about his approach, little changed since two months ago.

And neither candidate has made much headway in the past month in convincing voters that they would make the right decisions about the economy.

On both evaluations - handling a crisis and handling the economy, more voters have an opinion about the incumbent than about the challenger, typical at this time in a campaign.

Both candidates are seen by a majority as having the skills needed to negotiate with other world leaders.

RATINGS OF THE PRESIDENT

President Bush's overall job approval remains low. 42% of Americans now approve of the job he is doing, while 51% disapprove. This rating is virtually the same as it was one month ago.

Moreover, most Americans continue to disapprove of Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq. Only 36% approve of his handling of it, and 58% disapprove. Bush receives similar marks on his handling of foreign policy. Only 39% approve of the President's handling of foreign policy while 52% of Americans disapprove.

Bush's rating on the economy has risen 4 points since last month. Just 40% approve of the President's handling of the economy, and more than half disapprove.

Handling of terrorism still remains a positive for the President. Over half - 52% - now approve of Bush's handling of the campaign against terrorism.

THE PRESIDENT'S APPROVAL RATINGS
Now
Overall
42%
Terrorism
52%
Economy
40%
Foreign policy
39%
War in Iraq
36%

5/2004
Overall
41%
Terrorism
51%
Economy
36%
Foreign policy
37%
War in Iraq
34%

Though handling of terrorism continues to be a strength for this President, concerns about Iraq continue to increase. Most Americans believe that the Iraq war has created more terrorists, though the Administration gets credit for its overall terrorism policy. 53% think the Bush Administration's policies have made the U.S. safer from terrorism. 28% say their policies have made the U.S. less safe, while 15% say there has been no effect.

BUSH ADMINISTRATION'S POLICIES HAVE MADE THE U.S. -
(Registered Voters)

Safer from terrorism
53%
Less safe
28%
No effect
15%

When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, he said he wanted to be a 'uniter, not a divider.' Now, half of voters say Bush's presidency has divided Americans, while 32% say it has brought Americans together. The feeling that Bush has divided Americans has increased since February.

There are partisan differences on this question. 53% of Republican voters think Bush's presidency has united Americans, while 69% of Democratic voters say his presidency has divided Americans.

THE ECONOMY

It appears that Americans' more positive views of the economy are helping George W. Bush remain competitive in this race. 58% now say the economy is in good shape compared to 52% last month. The number who thinks the condition of the economy is good is the highest since December 2003.

THE ECONOMY IS
Now
Good
58%
Bad
41%

5/2004
Good
52%
Bad
47%

3/2004
Good
49%
Bad
49%

12/2003
Good
59%
Bad
40%

The public's outlook for the economy is also somewhat more optimistic now than it was last month. And more Americans than last month also think things in the country are headed in the right direction, though that group is still a minority. Despite more positive perceptions of the nation's economy, a majority of Americans still say things in this country have seriously gotten off on the wrong track. 57% think the country is on the wrong track, while 36% say the country is headed in the right direction.

Many voters continue to think the policies of the Bush Administration have decreased the number of jobs in the U.S. 45% say Administration polices of decreased jobs, 24% say their policies have increased the
number of jobs, and another quarter say the policies of the current administration have had no effect on jobs.

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



This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 1053 adults, interviewed by telephone June 23-27, 2004. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus three percentage points for results based on the entire sample. Error for subgroups may be higher.

  • Joel Roberts

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