While most of America is watching the spread in the polls between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry, key strategists in both parties have their eyes on a different set of numbers: Bush’s share of the vote and his job approval in the final surveys before election day.
Analysts watch the incumbent’s numbers in the polls so closely because most voters who stay undecided until the very end of a presidential campaign traditionally break for the challenger. As a result, challengers often run ahead of their final poll results, while incumbents rarely exceed their last poll numbers.
“We know from the history of presidential elections that when a president is polling below 50% going into the election, he usually loses,” said Alan I. Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist. “That is true of incumbent office holders in general. The incumbent usually ends up getting the percentage that he is getting in the final polls -- that’s it.”
By that standard, the race today is teetering right on the knife’s edge, though perhaps tilting slightly toward Bush after he regained the lead in five separate national polls released over the weekend. More importantly, for the first time since the debates, Bush in three of the latest surveys cracked the 50% level in support -- the best news GOP strategists have seen in weeks.
Surveys released Saturday by Newsweek and ABC/Washington Post put Bush’s support at 50% among likely voters. On Sunday, Bush reached 52% among likely voters in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, opening an 8-percentage-point advantage over Kerry.
But a survey released over the weekend by Time placed Bush at 48% -- as did the Newsweek result among registered voters. And the daily tracking poll by independent pollster John Zogby on Sunday put Bush at 46% with likely voters. Among registered voters, Bush got 49% in the new Gallup Poll.
Bush’s approval rating, another key indicator, is still running just below 50% in most polls.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Democrats are basing their hopes less on the difference between Bush and Kerry than on those surveys showing the president below 50% in support.
“This is a very well-known incumbent where people have strong views,” said Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, a Kerry advisor. “His number [in the last polls] I believe is his number [on election day].”
Even some senior Republican strategists privately agreed that the experience of the last half-century supported that argument. In the history of polling dating back to 1952, no incumbent president has run even 1 full percentage point better on election day than he did in the final Gallup Poll before the vote.
But other GOP strategists argued that doubts about Kerry would allow Bush to capture enough late-deciding voters to win, even if he couldn’t stay near 50% through election day.
“I’d rather be over 50 than under 50, but just because you’re under 50 doesn’t mean you are destined to lose this kind of race,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “Both Bush and Kerry have universal name recognition by now and this is a lot more than just a referendum on the incumbent.”
Matthew Dowd, the Bush campaign’s chief strategist, has privately raised similar arguments to leading Republicans. Dowd noted that Kerry has been unable to establish a clear lead over Bush in almost any poll, despite good reviews from viewers in all three debates. That pattern, like Kerry’s failure to open a solid lead in polls after the well-received Democratic convention last July, suggested voters who were uncertain about Bush might remain hesitant to commit to the Democrat.
“If [Kerry’s] first debate was his finest moment, and he didn’t take a lead, what is going to cause an undecided voter ... to say, ‘Now, I’m going to go with Kerry’?” Dowd said.
Three factors add to the uncertainty as the two sides anxiously pore over the late poll numbers. One is whether an unexpectedly large turnout -- which appears possible given all the signs of unusually high interest in the race -- could give either side an advantage not fully measured in late polling.
Another is that no one is certain how much of the vote will be needed to win this year -- since no one knows how many votes Ralph Nader and other third party candidates will siphon away.
The final factor is the inevitable imperfection of polling. “At 45% or 46% and tied or down two, that is a long road for Bush -- where I’ve had lots of unhappy outcomes in my career,” said one leading Republican. “At 48-48, I’ve seen incumbents win by 15,000 votes. There is a big difference [for Bush] between 48 and 46. The problem is polling isn’t that good.”
History isn’t always predictive, but races involving White House incumbents have produced a clear pattern over the last 50 years.
Since Gallup began systematic polling in 1952, eight incumbents have sought reelection. Bill Clinton in 1996, Jimmy Carter in 1980, Gerald Ford in 1976, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 all attracted a smaller share of the vote on election day than they did in the final Gallup survey. Richard M. Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984 finished almost exactly at their final polling numbers.
George H.W. Bush in 1992 ran seven-tenths of a percentage point ahead of his final poll number, the biggest increase for any incumbent since 1952. The one exception to this pattern was in 1948, when Gallup polled less often, and the final survey, begun in mid-October, missed Harry S. Truman’s late surge; Truman exceeded his final poll number by a full 5 percentage points.
Conversely, challengers -- like Reagan in 1980, Carter in 1976, Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Adlai Stevenson in 1956 -- have frequently polled higher on election day than in the final survey.
Experts like Abramowitz said those results indicated that whether Bush was running slightly ahead, slightly behind or even, he couldn’t breathe easy as long as his own support in the polls stood below 50%. “The key thing to watch is whether Bush can get himself to the 50% mark or at least very close to it,” Abramowitz said. “That is more important than who is ahead. Even if Bush is ahead by a point or two, if he is at 47 or 48%, I think he’s in real danger.”
In a recent article for the website of American Prospect, a liberal magazine, Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux likewise wrote that Bush’s numbers in the final surveys were a better indicator of the race’s real status than the difference between the president and Kerry.
“If Bush can get to 50% or above in the polls, he should be able to win,” Molyneux noted. “At 49% ... we’re probably looking at another photo finish, lots of recounts and narrow state-by-state victories dictating the electoral college outcome. And below 49%, Bush is almost certain to lose.”
But Dowd said he was confident that Bush could gain enough late votes to win even if he didn’t remain at 50% in the final surveys.
Because the remaining undecided voters tend to be white and more socially conservative, Dowd maintained they were likely to break in the same proportion as the overall electorate -- providing neither side with an advantage. That would allow other factors -- like the parties’ competing get-out-the-vote efforts -- to decide the result.
“If you look at who the undecided are, they are roughly split on favorable/unfavorable for Bush and Kerry,” Dowd said. “Looking at them, there are no liberals, no minorities. They are moderates or conservatives; they go to church frequently, more frequently than the general electorate. These people at worst are split voters.”
But independent pollster John Zogby was dubious that Bush would be able to split those who remained undecided to the end. In Zogby’s Sunday poll, two-thirds of undecided voters said they were dissatisfied with Bush’s job performance.
“Bush is not going to get them under any circumstances,” he predicted. The key uncertainty, Zogby said, was whether “Kerry can persuade them to come out to vote.”
Another senior GOP strategist agreed it was dangerous for Bush to base his hopes on winning more of the undecided than usual for an incumbent.
“The undecided voters are less well-educated younger women who don’t pay attention to politics,” the strategist said. “The reason they are not moving is they don’t have to yet. More than two-thirds of them say the country is on the wrong track. Because of their concern about the economy and Iraq, these are people who are going to be very difficult to persuade to vote for the incumbent.”
A related trend raises comparable questions for Bush. Since the Gallup Organization began systematic polling in 1952, five incumbents have run for reelection with an approval rating above 50%. All five -- Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton -- won.
Over that period, three incumbents sought reelection with an approval rating below 50%. All three -- Ford in 1976, Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 -- lost.
After running below 50% from spring through midsummer, George W. Bush’s approval rating pushed well past that critical marker right after the GOP convention, peaking at 54% in a late September CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll.
But amid uneven reactions to Bush’s debate performances -- particularly last month’s first encounter with Kerry -- and the problems in Iraq, the president’s approval ratings slipped back just below 50% in the polls released over the weekend by Newsweek, Time and Zogby.
Dowd said that the numbers on Bush’s job approval and share of the vote were so close to the tipping point between victory and defeat that the president could survive even if he wasn’t able to push his pre-election support to the traditional 50% milestone.
“Being over 50 -- all of those standard things -- don’t concern me this year,” he said.
But even other senior Republicans say in the final two weeks they are less focused on how Bush stands relative to Kerry than how he performs relative to the 50% benchmark, both in his vote and his job approval rating.
“The key thing to watch for him and for most any incumbent is what is the job approval?” says Tony Fabrizio, the pollster for GOP nominee Bob Dole in 1996.
With Bush hovering so close to that critical 50%, small changes in the numbers are likely to provoke large mood swings in both campaigns for the next 15 days.
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As the presidential race moves into its last two weeks, the percentage of likely voters who say they will vote for President Bush hovers around 50%. Four polls from the weekend:
Sources: The polls
Los Angeles Times