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The Race is On
With voters widely viewing Kerry as the debate’s winner, Bush’s lead in the NEWSWEEK poll has evaporated
Ron Edmonds / AP
Long Night's Journey Into Day
Oct. 2 - With a solid majority of voters concluding that John Kerry outperformed George W. Bush in the first presidential debate on Thursday, the president’s lead in the race for the White House has vanished, according to the latest NEWSWEEK poll. In the first national telephone poll using a fresh sample, NEWSWEEK found the race now statistically tied among all registered voters, 47 percent of whom say they would vote for Kerry and 45 percent for George W. Bush in a three-way race.
Removing Independent candidate Ralph Nader, who draws 2 percent of the vote, widens the Kerry-Edwards lead to three points with 49 percent of the vote versus the incumbent’s 46 percent. Four weeks ago the Republican ticket, coming out of a successful convention in New York, enjoyed an 11-point lead over Kerry-Edwards with Bush pulling 52 percent of the vote and the challenger just 41 percent.
Among the three-quarters (74 percent) of registered voters who say they watched at least some of Thursday’s debate, 61 percent see Kerry as the clear winner, 19 percent pick Bush as the victor and 16 percent call it a draw. After weeks of being portrayed as a verbose “flip-flopper” by Republicans, Kerry did better than a majority (56 percent) had expected. Only about 11 percent would say the same for the president’s performance while more than one-third (38 percent) said the incumbent actually did worse that they had expected. Thirty-nine percent of Republicans felt their man out-debated the challenger but a full third (33 percent) say they felt Kerry won.
Kerry’s perceived victory may be attributed to the fact that, by a wide margin (62 percent to 26 percent), debate watchers felt the senator came across as more confident than the president. More than half (56 percent) also see Kerry has having a better command of the facts than Bush (37 percent). As a result, the challenger’s favorability ratings (52 percent, versus 40 percent unfavorable) are better than Bush’s, who at 49 percent (and 46 percent unfavorable), has dipped below the halfway mark for the first time since July. Kerry, typically characterized as aloof and out of touch by his opponents, came across as more personally likeable than Bush (47 percent to the president’s 41 percent).
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In fact, Kerry’s numbers have improved across the board, while Bush’s vulnerabilities have become more pronounced. The senator is seen as more intelligent and well-informed (80 percent, up six points over last month, compared to Bush’s steady 59 percent); as having strong leadership skills (56 percent, also up 6 points, but still less than Bush’s 62 percent) and as someone who can be trusted to make the right calls in an international crisis (51 percent, up five points and tied with Bush).
Meanwhile, Bush’s approval ratings have dropped to below the halfway mark (46 percent) for the first time since the GOP convention in late August. Nearly half of all voters (48 percent) say they do not want to see Bush re-elected, while 46 percent say they do. Still, a majority of voters (55 percent versus 29 percent) believe the president will be re-hired on Nov. 2.
Neither man was seen as a particularly stronger leader (44 percent Bush, 47 percent Kerry), more negative (37 percent Bush, 36 percent Kerry) or more honest (43 percent Bush, 45 percent Kerry).
Perhaps because the debate topic focused on foreign policy—and largely was dominated by the war in Iraq—that issue rates higher as a voter concern than it did a month ago. Twenty percent of all voters say Iraq is the issue that will most determine their vote, up from 15 percent. Tied with Iraq is the economy (21 percent), and still leading the list is terrorism and homeland security (26 percent). And key for the president is the fact that he is the preferred man on the issues more important to voters. On homeland security, Bush is preferred 52 percent to Kerry’s 40 percent (a significant spread, but a narrowing one: Last month the spread, in the president’s favor, was 58 percent to 34 percent). On Iraq Bush is preferred 49 percent to 44 percent (compared to 54 percent versus 39 percent a month ago). Kerry is even with the president on the question of which man is better suited to guide foreign policy in general (48 percent Bush to the challenger’s 46 percent) and clamping down on the proliferation of nuclear materiel (47 percent Bush, 43 percent Kerry).
Source: Newsweek/Ipsos poll. Margin of error: +/- 4; totals may not equal 100 due to undecideds. Note: Question wording slightly modified. Question wording for trends prior to 7/8-9/04 did not include vice presidential candidates’ names.
Where Kerry clearly leads is on domestic issues, which will be the focus of the third debate on Oct. 13, in Tempe, Ariz. The Democrat is preferred to Bush by double-digit spreads on who would be better at handling the economy (52 percent to 39 percent), foreign competition (54 percent to 36 percent) and health care (56 percent to 34 percent).
Although the subject of the draft was only briefly addressed during the debate, four in ten voters (38 percent) believe that because of the war in Iraq—which 50 percent of all voters now view as unnecessary—a second Bush administration would reinstate the draft. Just 18 percent feel the same would happen if Kerry were elected. Nearly two thirds (62 percent) feel a draft should not be considered at this time and 28 percent said a draft should at least be considered. But only 46 percent feel going to war was the right decision in the first place with just as many (45 percent) under the impression that the administration deliberately misled the nation into war with falsified evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
Finally, echoing a recurring refrain of Kerry’s, more than half of all voters (51 percent) think the Bush administration has not done enough to engage other nations (43 percent feel they have done enough or even gone too far in that direction as it is).
For the NEWSWEEK poll, Princeton Survey Research Associates interviewed 1,013 registered voters aged 18 and older between Sept. 30 and Oct. 2 by telephone. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
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