Poll Analysis: Bush Regains Some of His Lead; Race Will Be Close

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Times Poll Asst. Director
     Just over a month after the Democratic convention, where Al Gore received his much needed and anticipated jump in the polls, the reverberations of this boost have begun to fade, and George W. Bush has started to reclaim some of his lost ground.
     Bush has salvaged his position as the leader, securing a six point lead over Gore among likely voters. In a two-way race where the poll asked which ticket voters would be more likely to support, eliminating Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan from the ballot, the race becomes a dead heat between the Bush/Cheney and Gore/Lieberman tickets.
     As previous polls have indicated, both Gore and Bush have held onto the bulk of their own party members, and while independents continue to favor Bush they are not a guaranteed voting block for him. In fact, when the poll narrowed the race to a two-way competition between the Republican and Democratic tickets, independents evenly split their vote.
     With a little more than a month to go until the election, likely voters as a group are more solidified in their decision, with equal majorities saying they are certain to vote for each candidate (rather than possibly voting for someone else). At the same time, about a quarter of both Bush and Gore supporters say they are backing their candidate because he is „the best of a bad lot.‰
     Additionally, despite his much discussed kiss at the Democratic convention, which has been used as a possible explanation for his climb in the polls, the character „issue‰ continues to haunt Gore as Bush beats him on character traits such as „likeable,‰ and „honest and trustworthy.‰ On the other hand, Bush continues to be plagued by a perceived weakness on a variety of issues; in fact, on every issue except military defense, Gore handily beats Bush in voters‚ minds as being able to handle that issue.

The Horserace
     According to the most recent Los Angeles Times poll, conducted from Sept. 23rd through 25th, Bush leads Gore by six points among likely voters:
      48% of likely voters said they are planning to vote for Bush in the upcoming election
      42% are planning to vote for Gore
     Ralph Nader, the Green party candidate, received 2% of the vote, and Pat Buchanan, the Reform party candidate, got just 1% of the vote. Six percent of likely voters were undecided at the time the poll was conducted.
     When the poll limited the race to the Bush/Cheney and Gore/Lieberman tickets, likely voters evenly split their vote, giving 48% to each party‚s ticket.
     Not surprisingly, more than nine out of 10 of both Bush and Gore‚s own voters say they are certain to vote for that candidate. The highest percentages of likely voters who say they still might vote for someone else are independents (13%), a heavily courted voting segment, and more strikingly, liberals (10%).
     In some uplifting news for Gore, baby boomers are more likely than non-boomers to change their vote (12% of boomers vs. 5% of non-boomers) as are those with some college education (13%) over those with college degrees or higher (8%) or high school or less (5%). Currently both boomers and those with some college education lean toward Bush.
     With a tight race ahead in the upcoming month, independents will likely play a powerful role in deciding the outcome of this election. In the four-way race, 46% throw their support to the Bush camp while 35% support Gore (Buchanan gets 4% of independents, Nader gets 3%). Additionally, despite his boost in this latest poll, Bush has not retaken groups he was previously swinging to his camp, such as women and voters in the East (both of whom are currently supporting Gore). For example, before the Democratic convention, when Bush enjoyed large leads over Gore, he was winning the female vote; now Gore is up among women by seven points.
     However, almost all self-identified Republicans (94%) plan to vote for Bush, while a smaller (though sturdy) 86% of self-identified Democrats support Gore. While Bush is getting 22% of the liberal vote, just 12% of conservatives plan to vote for Gore. Bush is also overwhelmingly winning the male vote (56% to Gore‚s 34%) which, should that trend continue, will be highly problematic for Gore.
     In good news for Gore, 58% of self-identified moderates plan to vote for him (just 33% plan to vote for Bush). Gore has also succeeded in bolstering the union household vote, which he had previously been conceding to Bush.

Candidate Impressions and Handling of Issues
     Both candidates have similar favorability ratings (57% of likely voters are favorable to Bush, 55% to Gore), as do their vice presidential running mates:
      46% are favorable to Cheney (26% are unfavorable, 27% are unfamiliar)
      46% are favorable toward Lieberman (20% are unfavorable, 33% are unfamiliar).
     Similarly, both parties receive comparable ratings from voters (51% are favorable toward Republicans, 56% toward Democrats).
     Gore‚s biggest strength remains in his handling of issues. On every issue the poll tested except military defense, likely voters think Gore would do a better job handling that issue than Bush, most strikingly on „has a better grasp of the issues in general‰ (where Gore leads by 17% points, 51% to Bush‚s 34%).
     However, the strong economy and likely voters‚ feeling that their own personal finances are strong have turned their attention away from the economy and to social issues such as education, health care and Social Security, all of which come up as issues voters would like to see addressed this election cycle.
     The strong economy and a general contentment with their own financial lives also leads likely voters to prefer a smaller government with fewer services over a larger government with many services by about two to one.
     These factors˜a strong economy, a focus on social issues, and a desire for smaller government with fewer services˜inevitably contribute to voters‚ preferences on the candidates‚ plans for both health care and education, where each man‚s plan receives nearly equal levels of support from likely voters. In other words, while likely voters generally believe Gore would do a better job of handling education (48% to Bush‚s 41%) and health care (51% to Bush‚s 34%), they also want a government of fewer services, a vision backed by the Bush team. Hence, when presented with specific details of both candidates‚ plans, they are torn in their inclination. Additionally, nearly four in 10 (37%) likely voters think the country is off on the wrong track (though 53% say we are headed in the right direction), and a whopping 62% want to see the next president change Clinton‚s policies rather than continue the policies of the current administration (22% would like to see Clinton‚s policies changed a lot and 40% would like to see a few specific things changed). This sentiment unquestionably hurts Gore, an integral part of that administration; two-thirds of those who would like to see Clinton‚s policies changed are backing Bush, while just 22% of this group are supporting Gore.
     And while the „character issue‰ continues to be one that is daunting to Gore, and is possibly the biggest obstacle blocking his path to the White House, he does fare better than Bush on „cares about people like me‰ (46% to Bush‚s 36%) and „understands the problems of the average American‰ (44% to Bush‚s 30%).
     At the same time, by slight margins voters perceive Bush to be more personally likeable (42% to Gore‚s 37%) and to have the „honesty and integrity to serve as president‰ (42% to Gore‚s 37%). These two attributes˜likeability and honesty˜are critical to voters, and appear to override the sense that Gore would handle every issue better than Bush.
     Similarly, while just 18% of likely voters say that a candidate‚s character is more important than his stand on the issues (58%), this group overwhelmingly supports Bush (78% to Gore‚s mere 14%). The 23% volunteering „both‰ as equally important also support Bush (62% to Gore‚s 29%). While Gore does win the majority of likely voters who say issues are more important to them than is character, he does so by a tighter margin (55% to Bush‚s 35%).
     However, Gore has in fact made inroads on the attributes the poll tested, narrowing the gap in voters‚ perceptions of his likeability and honesty, and statistically tying Bush on „shares my moral values‰ (41% for Bush, 39% for Gore) and „will be a strong leader for the country‰ (43% for Bush, 42% for Gore).

The Debates
     After much commotion regarding the format of the debates, both camps have agreed to debate three times. This agreement corresponds with the importance voters place on debating. Nearly eight in 10 (79%) think that it is important for the candidates to debate one another, and of this group, another three-quarters say the debates will be important to them (34% say very important) in deciding for whom to vote.
     Currently, far fewer voters believe that Bush has made it clear what he wants to accomplish than Gore:
      59% of likely voters believe Gore has made clear what he wants to accomplish (34% do not think so)
      46% believe Bush has made clear what he wants to accomplish (44% do not think so) If Bush wants to continue his lead, he should heed this potential warning from voters, and detail his ideas for the future by Oct. 17th, the date of the third and final debate.

How the Poll Was Conducted
     The Times Poll contacted 1,052 registered voters nationwide, including 694 voters most likely to vote, by telephone Sept. 23ˆ25, 2000. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and non-listed numbers could be contacted. The entire sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and region. The margin of sampling error for registered voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points; for likely voters it is 4 points. For certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.