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Just a Week Out, Voters Prefer President Bush, But Only Narrowly

President Bush goes into the last week of the campaign with a narrowing lead over Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and weak job approval, but he scores well on character as well as terrorism and Iraq, which voters say are their top concerns. [IMGCAP(1)]

Those are the conclusions I draw from the avalanche of polls released over the past week. Kerry’s hope has to be that, at the end of the day, voters think that jobs and health care are more important than foreign policy and are fed up with Bush’s performance across the board.

The average of nine national polls taken Oct. 17-24 gave Bush a 48.7 percent to 45.8 percent lead over Kerry, with Ralph Nader coming in at 1.4 percent. In a two-way race, Bush led by 3.2 points.

Bush led Kerry in all but one of the latest surveys, The Associated Press/Ipsos poll, which showed Kerry ahead by 3 points.

The bad news for Bush lay in the polling trend, his job approval numbers, the right track-wrong track figure and the University of Michigan Consumer Confidence Index, all of which have a history of forecasting winners and losers.

Bush’s Monday lead of 2.9 percent was down from 3.8 percent two weeks ago. The Washington Post/ABC daily track showed Bush’s lead dropping from 5 points to 1 point at the end of last week.

When an incumbent president goes into an election with a Michigan index below 90, he’s in trouble. Last week, it was 87.5. Presidents are also in trouble when the right-track number is below 40 in late October. Last week, the NBC poll put it at 39.

Weekend polling pushed Bush’s overall job approval back up to 50.1 percent, but last week it was at 48.8. The “JA” number traditionally approximates a president’s share of the popular vote.

Historically, though, we are in never-never land. At this point, among the presidents who’ve lost, Gerald Ford dropped from a 47 percent approval rating to 44 in Gallup polls in the week before the election. Jimmy Carter was at 37 percent, and George H.W. Bush was at 33 percent.

Among the recent presidents who’ve won, Ronald Reagan had a 58 percent approval rating and Bill Clinton, 54 percent — well above the 50 percent mark. For just-under or just-over, there’s no precedent.

It ought to be of some comfort to Bush — but not a lot — that in the three cases when incumbents lost, late-October polls showed them already trailing their challengers. Carter was beating Ford 49-44 in 1976. Bill Clinton was ahead of Bush’s father in 1992 by 44-35.

In 1980, Carter led Reagan going into their only debate, 45-42, on Oct. 29. The debate flipped the race and Reagan went into the last days of the campaign leading 46-43. He ultimately won in a landslide, 51-41.

All the polls show that voters are not very happy with Bush’s performance across the board. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed his approval on the economy at only 45 percent; on foreign policy generally, at 48 percent; and on the war on terrorism at a bare 50 percent.

The Pew Research Center poll showed that only 37 percent of voters approve of Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq and that only 46 percent now believe that using force there was the right thing to do, a drop of 7 points since September.

Such results could produce a victory for Kerry if his aides’ theory of the race is correct — that when an incumbent is running for another term, the election becomes a referendum on his performance.

The Bush campaign has always viewed this election differently — as a choice between two candidates. The polls give Bush lots of reasons to think he’ll win.

On practically every comparison of the two candidates on issues and character, the polls show that Bush comes out ahead or reasonably close to Kerry.

And, in most of the polls, terrorism and Iraq are listed at the top of the public’s agenda, giving Bush a major advantage.

When Fox News asked voters to choose which issue was more important to them, national security or the nation’s economy, they chose security, 46 to 39.

Similarly, in The Washington Post poll, 27 percent said that the economy was their most important issue, compared to a combined 45 percent for terrorism and Iraq.

And on most of the issues, the polls show that the public prefers Bush over Kerry. In the latest bipartisan Battleground Survey, Bush led Kerry on Iraq by 52-41. On terrorism, 56-35. On creating jobs, Kerry led by 51-40, but on “keeping America prosperous,” he was ahead by just 1 point. All polls show Kerry with a solid lead on health care.

What seems crucial to me is whom the voters basically trust. And on this, Bush virtually sweeps. In the NBC poll, 44 percent of voters have confidence in Kerry as commander in chief. Forty-eight percent do not. In Bush’s case, 51 percent do, 29 percent don’t.

In responding to a terrorist attack, voters break 46-47 on confidence in Kerry, 65-29 for Bush.

On character questions, Bush beats Kerry 57-19 on “being consistent and standing up for his beliefs”; 48-33 on “having the strong leadership qualities needed to be president”; and 43-29 on “having high personal standards that set the proper moral tone for the country.”

The NBC poll showed that voters think Kerry is more intelligent, 46-24, but Kerry beats Bush by only 39-38 on “being compassionate enough to understand average people.” And the two are virtually tied on “being a world leader in dealing with other countries.”

Other polls confirm that voters carry these impressions in their heads. And, when voters are asked who they think will actually win the election, they tend to say “Bush.” If I had to predict now, I’d say Bush, too. But I don’t have to.

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