Race Tightens Again, Kerry’s Image Improves

Summary of Findings: Race Tightens Again, Kerry’s Image Improves (Pew Research)

As the campaign heads into its final stages, the presidential race is again extremely close. The latest Pew Research Center survey of 1,307 registered voters, conducted Oct. 15-19, finds President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry tied at 45%-45% among registered voters, and 47%-47% among likely voters.(1) These findings represent a gain in support for the Democratic challenger since early October, when he trailed the president among both likely and registered voters.

Kerry’s gains in the horse race are tied more to an improving personal image than to growing strength on the issues. In particular, the Democratic challenger has virtually erased Bush’s advantage for honesty and having good judgment in a crisis. Kerry is again seen as the more empathetic candidate, an advantage he held earlier in the campaign but lost after the Republican convention. Bush continues to lead by significant but narrowing margins as the stronger leader and as the candidate more willing to take an unpopular stand on the issues.

There has been little movement in how voters assess the candidates on the issues. But a separate Pew Research Center poll of 803 adults shows that Bush’s own approval measures have weakened appreciably. Bush’s overall job approval stands at 44%, while solid majorities disapprove of his handling of the situation in Iraq (56% disapprove) and the economy (55%). Even on terrorism, the president’s strongest issue, his approval rating stands at 49% ­ the lowest level since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Despite this erosion, however, most voters continue to believe that Bush, not Kerry, would do a better job of defending the country from future terrorist attacks (by 53%-35%). Bush also holds a 47%-41% advantage over Kerry as the candidate best able to handle Iraq. As in the past, more voters express confidence in Kerry than Bush to deal with the economy and improve the nation’s health care system.

The survey finds that voter opinion is solidifying even as the race tightens. A decreasing number of supporters of each candidate ­ 8% of Kerry voters and 9% of Bush voters ­ say they could still change their vote before Nov. 2. Moreover, 80% of all voters say the candidates take different positions from one another on the issues, far higher than the percentage who expressed that view in June, and at any point in the 2000 campaign.

The tightness of the race isn’t surprising, since that’s been a consistent trend throughout the cycle, with only a couple of blips along the way. It’s unclear to me why Kerry’s image would be improving, however. His poll numbers dipped across the board after the most recent debate and there has been no obvious intervening event.

Update (1135): Pew president Andrew Cohut [RSS] has a companion piece in today’s NYT making a rather counterintuitive argument:

The round of national surveys taken after the third presidential debate indicates that the polls are not going to give us a clear picture of who will win the election until the final days of the campaign, if then. This is not because polling no longer works – it’s because voter opinion is highly unstable.

Meanwhile, Michael Barone, echoing Steven Den Beste, argues that voter opinion has been remarkably consistent for months.

Go figure.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, Public Opinion Polls, Terrorism, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. McGehee says:

    Somebody — and we won’t know who until after Election Day — is simply delusional and letting it color their analysis.

    That’s the only thing I can think of to explain it.