President Bush heads into next week’s Republican National Convention with voters moving slightly in his direction since July amid signs that Sen. John F. Kerry has been nicked by attacks on his service in Vietnam, a Times poll has found.
For the first time this year in a Times survey, Bush led Kerry in the presidential race, drawing 49% among registered voters, compared with 46% for the Democrat. In a Times poll just before the Democratic convention last month, Kerry held a 2-percentage-point advantage over Bush.
That small shift from July was within the poll’s margin of error. But it fit with other findings in the Times poll showing the electorate edging toward Bush over the past month on a broad range of measures, from support for his handling of Iraq to confidence in his leadership and honesty.
Although a solid majority of Americans say they believe Kerry served honorably in Vietnam, the poll showed that the attacks on the senator from a group of Vietnam veterans criticizing his performance in combat and his antiwar protests at home have left some marks: Kerry suffered small but consistent erosion compared with July on questions relating to his Vietnam experience, his honesty and his fitness to serve as commander in chief.
The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 1,597 adults, including 1,352 registered voters nationwide, from Saturday through Tuesday. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
With independent voters splitting evenly in the survey between the two men, one key to Bush’s tentative new advantage was his greater success at consolidating his base. While 3% of voters who called themselves Republicans said they would vote for Kerry, Bush drew 15% of all Democrats, and 20% of Democrats who consider themselves moderate or conservative, the poll found.
Bush’s advantage remained 3 percentage points when independent candidate Ralph Nader was added to the mix. In a three-way race, Bush drew 47%, compared with 44% for Kerry and 3% for Nader, whose access to the ballot in many key states remains uncertain.
For all the promising signs for Bush, the poll found the president still threatened by a current of uneasiness about the nation’s direction. In the survey, a slight majority of voters said they believed the country was on the wrong track. A majority also said the country was not better off because of his policies and needed to set a new course. And 45% said they believed his policies had hurt rather than helped the economy.
Those results suggested that a substantial part of the electorate remained open to change. But amid the firefight over Kerry’s Vietnam service and uncertainty about his policy plans, the Democrat still has not built a constituency for his candidacy as large as the audience for change in general, the poll suggested. Nearly 1 in 5 voters who say the country needs to change policy direction is not supporting Kerry, according to the poll.
Pamela Sundberg, a disabled paralegal from Moorhead, Minn., who responded to the survey, crystallized the conflicting emotions among those drawn toward change but still resisting Kerry.
Sundberg voted for Bush in 2000, but now feels “we got ourselves in a mess in Iraq,” where her son has been serving. She is dubious about Kerry, saying that “he’s so back-and-forth about things.”
But while leaning toward Bush now, she can envision switching to Kerry by November. “Maybe just for a change, he should be elected,” she said.
Swift Boat Divide
The country divides mostly along predictable partisan lines on the exchanges between Kerry and the group that has attacked his Vietnam record over the past month, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. But by several measures, the struggle appears to be drawing some blood from Kerry.
The Swift boat group, which has received funding from several of Bush’s supporters and advice from some veteran Republican operatives, has made only relatively small purchases of television time in a few battleground states for its two ads, the first charging that Kerry did not deserve some of the five medals he won in Vietnam and the second criticizing his antiwar testimony before the Senate in 1971.
But with the controversy attracting intense media attention, especially on talk radio and cable television, the ads have achieved extraordinary visibility among voters. Fully 48% of those polled said they had seen the ad accusing Kerry of lying to win his medals; an additional 20% said they had heard about it. Similarly, 44% said they had seen the ad criticizing Kerry’s Senate testimony; another 17% said they had heard about it.
At the same time, 18% of those surveyed said they “believe that Kerry misrepresented his war record and does not deserve his war medals,” while 58% said Kerry “fought honorably and does deserve” the medals.
Attitudes on that question divided along party lines. As many Republicans said they believed Kerry was lying as believed he fought honorably. By nearly 10 to 1, Democrats said Kerry served honorably.
Independents sided with Kerry in the dispute by more than 5 to 1. Among them was Monika Schiel, a retiree in Gardena, Calif. “You have all the people that were on Kerry’s boat--not somewhere downstream or upstream--confirming what he said,” said Schiel. “This is some typical smear stuff; it seems mostly done by Republicans.”
When voters were asked whether Kerry’s protest against the war when he returned from Vietnam would influence their vote, 20% said it made them more likely to support him, while 26% said it reduced the chance they would back him, and 52% said it made no difference.
But if Kerry showed relatively few bruises on these questions directly measuring reactions to the veterans’ charges against him, indirect measures suggested he had suffered more damage.
Asked how Kerry’s overall military experience would affect their vote, 23% said it made them more likely to vote for him, while 21% said it made them less likely; the remaining 53% said it would make no difference. That has to be a disappointment for the Kerry camp after a Democratic convention last month that placed Kerry’s Vietnam service at the top of the marquee.
Two other key questions produced even more troubling results for Kerry.
In the July Times poll, 53% of voters said Kerry had demonstrated in his Vietnam combat missions the “qualities America needs in a president,” while 32% said that by “protesting the war in Vietnam, John Kerry demonstrated a judgment and belief that is inappropriate in a president.”
In the August survey, that balance nudged away from Kerry, with 48% saying he had demonstrated the right qualities and 37% saying he had exhibited poor judgment.
Likewise, the share of voters saying they lacked confidence in Kerry as a potential commander in chief edged up from 39% in July to 43% now; the percentage that said they were confident in him slipped from 57% to 55%. Both changes were within the poll’s margin of error, yet both tracked with the poll’s general pattern of slight Kerry slippage.
Similar trends were evident on voters’ assessments of the two men’s personal qualities. Compared with July, Bush slightly widened his advantage over Kerry when voters were asked which was a strong leader and which had the honesty and integrity to serve as president.
Following the poll’s general trend, the percentage of voters who said they viewed Kerry favorably slipped from 58% in July to 53% in August, while the percentage who viewed him unfavorably ticked up from 36% to 41%. Bush’s ratings were virtually unchanged from last month in this poll, with 53% viewing him favorably and 46% unfavorably.
The poll spotlighted another challenge for Kerry. After a Democratic convention that focused much more on Kerry’s biography than his agenda, 58% said they knew even a fair amount about the policies he would pursue as president; nearly 4 in 10 said they knew not much or nothing at all.
By comparison, although Bush has put forward few specifics about his second-term priorities, 70% said they had a good idea of the policies he would pursue.
Bush Holding His Own
Compared with the trend of modest erosion for Kerry in the poll, Bush either slightly gained ground or stabilized his position on several measures.
Bush’s overall approval rating, which many analysts consider the best single gauge of his prospects in November, stood at 52%, with 47% disapproving; the numbers last month were 51% to 48%.
Bush’s approval rating on the economy, at 46%, hardly budged from July. But the percentage of voters who gave him positive marks on Iraq did bump up from 44% in July to 48% now, with 50% disapproving.
Asked if the situation in Iraq was worth launching the war over, 46% said yes and 49% said no; last month the numbers were 44% and 51%.
“We should have done it a long time ago, eight to 10 years ago, and we probably wouldn’t have had 9/11,” said Gene Cox, a small-business owner and veteran from Crestview, Fla., who is supporting Bush.
Yet warning signs continue to blink at Bush. Fully 54% of voters said the country was not better off because of Bush’s policies and that it should move in a new direction -- although that represented an improvement for Bush from the 59% who felt that way last month.
Asked if Bush deserved reelection, 47% of voters said yes and 49% said no. By contrast, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, the last two presidents who won a second term, polled 56% and 57% on that question, respectively, in other polls at roughly this time in their campaigns.
While 45% of those polled said Bush’s economic policies had left the country worse off, 27% believed they had improved conditions. Independents fell on the negative side of that ledger by nearly 3 to 1. And 52% of all voters said the country was heading down the wrong track.
Voters were far more likely to identify Bush than Kerry as inflexible and unwilling to admit his mistakes. Pluralities picked Kerry over Bush when asked which man had better ideas for strengthening the economy and which was more likely “to build respect for the United States around the world.”
“While America has had an image problem for decades, it’s never been this low,” said Grace Russo Bullaro, an independent and college professor from Syosset, N.Y., who did not vote in 2000 but planned to support Kerry this fall. “The world is now afraid that Bush is going to blow us up.”
Since last month’s poll, Bush has gained in the race against Kerry across a broad range of groups.
But Bush’s greatest strides have come among groups that tend to hold more culturally conservative views, among them: voters earning less than $40,000 a year, those without college educations, married women, and voters living in small towns or rural communities. By contrast, since July, Bush has made almost no progress, or has lost ground, among constituencies that typically hold more socially moderate views: college graduates, more affluent families and suburbanites.
The Democrats picking Bush over Kerry in the poll tended to fit that profile as well, with Kerry suffering his greatest defections among Democrats without college degrees, those who own guns, and those who call themselves conservative, live in rural areas or are married.
All of this may offer more indirect evidence that the Vietnam-era charges are hurting Kerry with socially conservative constituencies that both sides covet.
One potential bright spot for Kerry: The 5% of voters who said they were undecided were overwhelmingly negative on the direction of the country, the impact of Bush’s policies and the decision to invade Iraq.
Those voters were also much more likely than the electorate overall to say Kerry’s service in Vietnam “demonstrated qualities America needs in a president.” And they were less likely to see Kerry’s protests when he returned as a sign of flawed judgment.
That could make them a receptive audience as Kerry fights to regain his balance from the Swift boat veterans’ offensive, even as Bush approaches the stage for his convention.
Times staff writer Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
‘You have all the people that were on [John F.] Kerry’s boat--not somewhere downstream or upstream-- confirming what he said.
This is some typical smear stuff;
it seems mostly done by Republicans.’
Monika Schiel, a Gardena, Calif., retiree and independent voter,
when asked about Kerry’s war service.
‘We should have done it a long time ago,
eight to 10 years ago, and we probably
wouldn’t have had 9/11.’
Gene Cox, a small-business owner and Bush supporter in Crestview, Fla., when asked if the situation in Iraq was worth launching the war.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Registered voters were asked whom they would vote for if the election were held today.
In a two-way contest
*--* Now July Bush/Cheney 49% 46% Kerry/Edwards 46% 48% Don’t know 5% 6%
Source: Times Poll
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Presidential matchup nationwide
Q: Whom would you vote for if the election were held today?
In a three-way contest
*--* Now July Bush/Cheney 47% Bush/Cheney 44% Kerry/Edwards 44% Kerry/Edwards 46% Nader/Camejo 3% Nader/Camejo 3% Don’t know 6% Don’t know 7%
Q: Have you seen, heard or read about a television ad that disputes whether Sen. John F. Kerry deserves the medals he received during the Vietnam War? ... How do you plan to vote?
Have seen ad (48%)
Those planning to vote for: George W. Bush -- 45%
Those planning to vote for: John F. Kerry -- 51%
Have heard about ad (20%)
Those planning to vote for: George W. Bush -- 52%
Those planning to vote for: John F. Kerry -- 41%
Haven’t seen/heard about ad (31%)
Those planning to vote for: George W. Bush -- 54%
Those planning to vote for: John F. Kerry -- 39%
Q: Have you seen, heard or read about a television ad about John F. Kerry’s role protesting the war in Vietnam? ... How do you plan to vote?
Have seen ad (44%)
Those planning to vote for: George W. Bush -- 50%
Those planning to vote for: John F. Kerry -- 46%
Have heard about ad (17%)
Those planning to vote for: George W. Bush -- 50%
Those planning to vote for: John F. Kerry -- 45%
Haven’t seen/heard about ad (37%)
Those planning to vote for: George W. Bush -- 49%
Those planning to vote for: John F. Kerry -- 44%
Q: Do you believe that John F. Kerry misrepresented his war record and does not deserve his war medals, or that he fought honorably and does deserve his war medals?
*--* Reg. voters Dems. Ind. Reps. Misrepresented 18% 8% 10% 34% Fought honorably 58% 77% 55% 36% Not aware 5% 4% 5% 7% Don’t know 19% 11% 30% 23%
Q: Which statement comes closer to your view: ‘In his combat missions in Vietnam, John F. Kerry demonstrated qualities America needs in a president'; or ‘By protesting the war in Vietnam, John F. Kerry demonstrated a judgment and belief that is inappropriate in a president’?
*--* Now July Combat mission demonstrated qualities America needs 48% 53% Protesting war demonstrated inappropriate judgment 37% 32% Both 4% 4% Don’t know 11% 11%
Q: Do you think the president deserves to be reelected?
*--* Question asked about: Deserves Doesn’t deserve reelection reelection George W. Bush (August 2004) 47% 49% Bill Clinton (August 1996*) 56% 42% George H.W. Bush (July 1992**) 41% 55% Ronald Reagan (August 1984***) 57% 37%
*ABC/Washington Post poll **Gallup poll ***NBC poll
Q: Generally speaking, do you think the country is better off because of George W. Bush’s policies and should proceed in the direction he set out, or do you think the country is not better off and needs to move in a new direction?
*--* Now July Continue policies 43% 38% Needs a new direction 54% 59%
Q: Does this apply more to George W. Bush or to John F. Kerry?
*--* Now July Bush Kerry Bush Kerry Cares about people like me 39% 43% 34% 44% Will be a strong leader 47% 42% 44% 42% Has honesty/integrity to be president 46% 39% 42% 42% Flip-flops on the issues 29% 49% 31% 43% Will keep country safe from terrorism 49% 33% 49% 31% Has better ideas for the economy 39% 46% 35% 48% Will build respect for the U.S. 40% 48% 38% 44% Shares my moral values 46% 37% 44% 38% Does not admit mistakes/is inflexible 53% 23% 55% 20% More likely to achieve success in Iraq 46% 40% 46% 37% More committed to recommendations in the 9/11 commission report 39% 40% Not asked Will be a more effective commander in chief 46% 43% Not asked Has a more detailed plan of policies 40% 32% Not asked
Notes: All results are among registered voters nationwide. Some answers may not add up to 100% where some some answer categories are not shown.
How the poll was conducted
The Times Poll contacted 1,597 adults nationwide, including 1,352 registered voters. Interviews were conducted by telephone Saturday through Tuesday. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation and random-digit dialing techniques were used to allow listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted. Adults were weighted slightly to conform with their respective census figures for sex, race, age and education. The margin of sampling error for all registered voters in the nation is plus or minus 3 percentage points in either direction. For certain subgroups, the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results may also be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.
Source: Los Angeles Times Poll