Voters Still Split Sharply, and Evenly
President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry, in a race dividing Americans far more along lines of cultural values than economic interests, remain locked in a dead heat one week before election day, a Times poll has found.
Whether measured among all registered voters or only those viewed as most likely to vote, and with or without independent candidate Ralph Nader in the mix, the survey finds Kerry and Bush in a statistical tie.
Among likely voters, Bush and Kerry each draw 48%, with Nader attracting 1% and with 3% undecided. Without Nader, Bush is backed by 49%, Kerry by 48% among likely voters -- a statistically insignificant difference. Undecided voters again total 3%.
The survey also finds voters split in half on Bush’s performance as president -- and almost in half on his decision to invade Iraq.
These results underscore the enormous pressure on both candidates in the waning days of a contest that appears as if it could be tipped by almost anything -- a misstatement on the campaign trail, favorable or unfavorable news for either side or the two parties’ competing efforts to turn out the vote.
The poll also signals that next Tuesday’s election is likely to continue a generation-long pattern in which attitudes on noneconomic issues -- including abortion and foreign policy -- have increasingly eclipsed class as the axis of U.S. politics.
With Bush framing the race as a stark choice between a liberal and a conservative, the cultural fissures evident in the 2000 presidential vote are resurfacing -- perhaps in even more dramatic fashion.
The Times poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,698 registered voters, of which 881 were deemed likely to vote, from Thursday through Saturday. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points for both groups.
The findings are in line with most other national surveys. Such polls generally show Bush tied or narrowly leading the Massachusetts senator, but usually just below the 50% level in support considered a critical measure of an incumbent’s reelection prospects.
The Times poll used a series of questions to determine those respondents most likely to vote. Unlike some other recent polls, it found little difference in the preferences of that group and all registered voters.
Among registered voters, a three-way race is still tied: Bush and Kerry each draw 47%, with Nader attracting 1%. In a two-way race, Kerry is supported by 48%, Bush 47% -- again, a statistically insignificant margin.
In its final days, the race is blurring some of the electorate’s familiar divides but emphatically deepening others, according to the poll.
Much smaller than in recent presidential elections is the gender gap, in which the majority of men usually vote Republican, and women usually lean Democratic.
Bush’s message, which stresses his national security record and his commitment to conservative cultural values, is helping him gain ground among lower middle-income and less-educated voters ambivalent about his economic record. Conversely, the message is costing him with more affluent and better-educated families that have historically supported Republicans.
Strikingly, Bush leads Kerry in the poll among lower- and middle-income white voters, but trails his rival among whites earning at least $100,000 per year.
Bush also runs best among voters without college degrees, whereas Kerry leads not only among college-educated women (a traditional Democratic constituency), but among college-educated men -- usually one of the electorate’s most reliably Republican groups in the electorate.
Consistently in the poll, cultural indicators prove more powerful predictors of candidate support than economic status.
Although the differences in support for Bush and Kerry among men and women each is within the survey’s margin of error, the poll finds a huge “marriage gap.” Married voters, who traditionally take more conservative positions on social issues, give Bush a 12-percentage-point lead, whereas singles (usually more liberal on social and economic issues) prefer Kerry by 20 points.
Nearly two-thirds of likely voters who attend a house of worship at least weekly said they would vote for Bush; among whites who attend that often, Bush’s support soared to nearly three-fourths.
“To me, his faith is very important,” said Patricia Rowen, a married payroll clerk in Fort Dodge, Iowa, who favored Bush and responded to the poll.
But Kerry draws three-fifths of those who attend a house of worship less often, including 55% of whites. Some of these voters recoil against Bush’s heavy use of religious imagery.
“With all of Bush’s talk about being born again and how much that matters.... I sort of wonder what matters more to him: what the Bible says or what the modern, common sense thought would say,” said Bret Enderton, a computer programmer in Pittsburgh who is single.
Bush is backed in the poll by just more than three-fifths of Americans who own a gun; among those who don’t, just fewer than three-fifths prefer Kerry. The Democrat is supported by almost two-thirds of urban voters, Bush by nearly three-fifths of rural and small-town voters, with suburbanites split almost in half.
These results closely replicate the results of the 2000 election.
The new poll finds that voters do not divide as predictably along lines of economic class.
For all the Democratic promises to protect the middle class -- despite the traditional GOP identification as the party of the rich -- Bush runs best among voters clustered around the nation’s median income of roughly $43,000 per household, and Kerry is strongest among the least affluent and the most comfortable, the survey finds.
This pattern is vividly illustrated when minority voters, who tend to vote heavily Democratic, are separated from the results. The president dominates among white voters earning from $40,000 to $100,000 a year, winning about three-fifths of that group.
Whites earning $40,000 a year or less split closely between Kerry (46%) and Bush (50%). Among white voters, Kerry leads only among those earning at least $100,000 per year -- who prefer him over Bush, 52% to 45%.
This inversion of conventional class allegiances is explained by several factors, the poll finds.
Lower-income whites like Bush’s proposal for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, but only a quarter of them believe his policies have helped the economy. And they split almost evenly on whether the president made the right decision by invading Iraq.
Middle-income whites are more divided on the constitutional amendment, but more supportive of Bush’s economic policies and the Iraq war.
Among the most affluent whites, majorities oppose the war and the constitutional amendment and believe Bush’s policies have hurt the economy.
The poll suggests that Kerry is building a coalition of minorities (nearly three-fourths of whom back him), some lower-income whites, many affluent whites, and singles.
Bush’s coalition is centered on lower- to upper-middle income white voters, especially those who are married or regularly attend religious services.
Along with the deadlock in the candidate “horse race” results, the contest looks just as close on the other measure analysts in both parties are watching carefully.
Since the Gallup Poll began systematic modern polling in 1952, every incumbent president with an approval rating over 50% has won a second term, and each with an approval rating below 50% has lost. By that standard, Bush is balancing on the knife’s edge almost as precariously as possible: In the Times survey, 49% of likely voters say they approve of his performance, 49% disapprove.
The biggest headwind for Bush may be gale-force doubts about the country’s direction. Fully 56% of likely voters say they believe America is on the wrong track, whereas just 40% believe it is moving in the right direction.
That level of discontent has usually spelled doom for the party holding the White House. But Bush is still running stride for stride with Kerry because he is winning more of those who believe the country is on the right track (94%) than Kerry is of those who think America is off course (81%).
The same pattern is evident on another critical question. Just 43% say they believe the “country is better off” because of Bush’s policies, and 55% believe the nation needs a new direction. But Bush wins 97% of those who like his policy direction, whereas Kerry attracts just 85% of those who want a new course.
That disparity reflects Bush’s continuing advantage on issues of personal strength.
Bush leads by 7 percentage points when voters are asked which man would provide strong leadership for the country and by 16 when asked who would best keep the country safe from terrorism. By 53% to 44%, voters say they approve of Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism. Voters prefer Bush by 50% to 45% when asked which man is better able to serve as commander in chief.
“World peace in general is everybody’s desire, but in the meantime you’ve got to be tough,” said Charles Friscia, an artist in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., who supports Bush.
On domestic issues, the president’s position is much weaker. By 51% to 47%, likely voters say they disapprove of Bush’s handling of the economy. Half of likely voters say his policies have hurt the economy, and about one-fourth believe they have helped.
Kerry leads by 11 percentage points when voters are asked who would do a better job creating jobs.
He also holds an 11-percentage-point lead on which candidate would best handle healthcare problems.
And despite Bush’s charge that Kerry would increase taxes on middle-class families, voters essentially split between the two on whom they trust to handle tax issues.
Thomas Craig, a Chicago lawyer supporting Kerry, said he considered it “unfathomable” that “with the state of the economy what it is and so many working poor just struggling to survive,” Bush would push into law tax cuts that included significant breaks for the wealthiest Americans.
On Iraq, the picture is more complex.
Voters remain deeply divided about Bush’s decision to launch the war, and anxious about the trend in events there. But more still say they trust the president over Kerry to handle the problem.
Stacy Smith, a waitress from Cape Vincent, N.Y., and a registered Republican, embodied the ambivalence. “I’d like to see changes there,” she said. “But since we did go to war, I think Bush would be a better one to handle it, rather than putting someone else in who maybe isn’t as familiar.”
When asked if the situation in Iraq was “worth going to war over,” 50% of likely voters said no, and 46% said yes. That’s virtually unchanged from The Times’ poll results in September and August.
Doubts about the progress in the war are widespread: 85% say they are concerned America will “become bogged down” in a long war in Iraq.
That may help explain two other discouraging findings for Bush. Half of likely voters say they believe the war will not make the world a safer place, compared with 45% who believe it will. And 50% of likely voters disapprove of Bush’s handling of the war, and 48% approve.
Despite these findings, by 47% to 40%, likely voters think Bush is more likely than Kerry to develop a plan for “achieving success in Iraq.”
That finding, like others in the survey, suggests that in the campaign’s final days, many voters are still balancing doubts about Kerry with discontent about Bush.
Control of the White House is teetering on those last-minute decisions.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Too close to call
If the election were held today, for whom would you vote?
Don’t know 3%
Q. 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?
Continue policies of George W. Bush 43%
Needs a new direction 55%
Don’t know 2%
Q. What is more important to you when deciding your vote for president: a candidate’s character and strength of leadership or how a candidate stands on the issues?
Candidate’s character/ strength of leadership
All likely voters 32%
Bush voters 48%
Kerry voters 17%
How candidate stands on the issues
All likely voters 44%
Bush voters 26%
Kerry voters 61%
Q. How would you rate the president on handling...?
*--* Now Sept. 2004 Approve Disapprove Approve Disapprove his job as president 49% 49% 52% 47% the war on terrorism 53% 44% 53% 44% the situation in Iraq 48% 50% 46% 52% the economy 47% 51% 46% 52%
Q. Which candidate would best handle:
*--* Bush Kerry Both Neither The 39% 50% 1% 7% healthcare situation Creating 40% 51% 1% 5% jobs in the U.S. Taxes 45% 47% 1% 4% Social issues such as abortion 45% 48% 1% 3% and gay marriage
Q. Which statement applies to George W. Bush or John F. Kerry?
*--* Bush Kerry Both Neither Will be a strong leader for the country 51% 44% 2% 2% Has honesty and integrity to serve as president 47% 44% 3% 5% Will keep country safe from terrorism 53% 37% 3% 6% Will build respect around the world 42% 50% 1% 5% Will strengthen nation’s economy 42% 49% 2% 5% Will develop a plan for success in Iraq 47% 40% 1% 8%
Q. Do you think the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over?
Worth it 46%
Not worth it 50%
Don’t know 4%
Worth it 45%
Not worth it 51%
Don’t know 4%
Worth it 47%
Not worth it 48%
Don’t know 5%
Q. Do you think the U.S. military action against Iraq will make the world a safer place?
Not safer 50%
Don’t know 5%
Not safer 49%
Don’t know 6%
Note: All results are among likely voters nationwide. Numbers may not add up to 100% because some answer categories are not shown.
How the poll was conducted
The Times Poll contacted 1,885 adults nationwide by telephone Oct. 21 - 24, 2004. Among that group 1,698 were registered voters, including 881 voters deemed likely to vote in the November election. Probable voters were determined by a screening process which included questions on intention to vote, certainty of vote, interest in the campaign, first time voter, and past voting history. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation, and random digit dialing techniques allowed listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted. Multiple attempts were made to contact each number. Adults were weighted slightly to conform with their respective census figures for sex, race, age and education. The margin of sampling error for both registered and likely voters 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: Times Poll
Times Poll data management supervisor Claudia Vaughn and staff writer Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.