Bush Leads Kerry by Eight Points in Poll
By Susan Page, USA TODAY
(Oct. 18) -- Not in a generation has a presidential election been so close for so long.
Now, as President Bush is pulling a bit ahead of Sen. John Kerry, every step - and misstep - could affect their frenetic race to the finish.
After three debates that drew tens of millions of viewers, the president leads Kerry 52%-44% among likely voters, according to a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Thursday through Saturday. That's a significant shift from Kerry's 1-percentage-point lead a week earlier. Among the larger group of registered voters, Bush leads 49%-46%.
That's encouraging movement for Bush, but it's hardly a safe margin. Even his lead among likely voters is on the cusp of the survey's margin of error.
With 15 days to go, strategists in both camps are making final calculations about where the candidates should stop, what they should say and which TV ads should air. Both sides are poised to change plans to respond to events - spiraling violence in Iraq that could hurt Bush, for instance, or capture of Osama bin Laden, which could help him. (Related link: Small gains sharpen Bush's edge)
Still, there are differences between their strategies for the sprint.
Kerry is emphasizing domestic issues and targeting swing voters. His latest ads, unveiled over the weekend, attack Bush for failing to prevent the flu-vaccine shortage and accuse him of planning a "January surprise" to privatize Social Security. In the next 10 days, aides say, Kerry will go hunting in Ohio, a demonstration of his regular-guy credentials to rural voters who often support Republicans.
Bush is hammering the war on terrorism - his strongest issue - and aiming his message at reliably Republican voters. His new ad, to be released today, accuses "John Kerry and his liberal allies" of voting to slash intelligence spending and oppose vital weapons. They haven't adjusted to a post-Sept. 11 world, it says: "Either we fight terrorists abroad or face them here."
Both candidates are guarding against an offhand remark that could create an unwanted controversy; Republicans seized on Kerry's comments in the final debate about Mary Cheney's sexual orientation as mean-spirited. The campaigns are poised to jump on a news development that could help make the case for their candidate, such as Kerry's argument that the vaccine shortage is another "George Bush mess." Pollsters are watching for signs of slippage in a friendly state, or an opening on the other side's turf - for Kerry in Colorado, or Bush in New Jersey.
But at this point, adjustments are on the margins.
"We aren't going to get any changes in strategy now - it's too late," says Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. "Either they reinforce what they delivered in the debates and at the political conventions, or they hope for or react to events."
Since Kerry emerged as the likely Democratic nominee in March, USA TODAY has taken 20 national surveys. In 19 of them, neither candidate had a lead outside the margins of error. Just once, in mid-September, after Kerry had been pummeled at the Republican National Convention and his Vietnam record assailed by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Bush held a 14-point advantage.
It was fleeting.
The president's edge eroded and then disappeared as Kerry began to fight back more effectively, especially in critiquing the war in Iraq. Kerry's steadiness in the debates, and Bush's uneven performance, helped the Massachusetts senator pull even again with the president.
Now the candidates are back precisely where they were in the Gallup Poll before the first debate. Bush aides note that's a good place to be: In the eight presidential elections that have included televised debates, the candidate with the lead after the last one has won the election.
But neither campaign is sure it will prevail. Evidence: Both sides are deploying thousands of lawyers and preparing for recounts and challenges in as many as a half-dozen states in case the outcome is as narrow and disputed as it was four years ago.
"Now it's a sprint to the finish," Bush told reporters aboard Air Force One. Here's a look at the course both candidates will run from now to Nov. 2.
On the stump: A shrinking battleground
In the beginning, there were 17 battleground states. Now the list of competitive states has shrunk to a dozen. Both sides deny that they are ceding states they once contested, but it's hard to argue with the message from their flight plans.
When Kerry canceled plans to campaign in West Virginia over the weekend, his aides' denials that the Mountaineer State was seen as Republican territory seemed half-hearted. "As we think of resources for these final two weeks and where we're going to be going and what we're going to be doing, there are a lot of judgment calls that we will have to make," Mike McCurry, a top adviser, acknowledges.
The Bush campaign, meanwhile, has stopped advertising in Washington state, where Kerry has a small but steady lead.
Just one state has moved onto the battleground list: Colorado, won by Bush in 2000 but close now. Bush will stop in New Jersey today as Republicans contend the Democratic-leaning state is in play. Democrats dismiss that as a feint designed to worry them into spending resources where they aren't needed.
Just in case, however, the Kerry campaign is weighing whether to move more of its Pennsylvania ad budget to Philadelphia TV stations, which are watched by voters in southern New Jersey.
No one disputes the trio of states that make up the heart of the battleground: Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Electoral College shorthand among analysts in both parties figures that the candidate who carries two of those states probably will win the election. The other closest states: Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa and Wisconsin.
As important as where the candidates go is what they say.
-- Kerry's closing theme was on banners at his rallies this weekend: "A fresh start for America," they read. "John Kerry: Fighting for us." That's a sharper and more populist message than his former slogan of "Stronger at home/Respected in the world."
The senator is making a series of speeches that aides describe as "closing arguments" for his election. The topics include the economy, health care and the cost of prescription drugs, topics his strategists say appeal to voters who aren't firmly committed one way or the other. He's attacking Bush's competence on everything from stabilizing the situation in Iraq to stemming the loss of manufacturing jobs in the USA.
This week, Kerry is campaigning in swing areas and even some Republican-leaning ones. He held a town-hall meeting Saturday in Xenia, Ohio, in a county Bush carried by 20 points in 2000. Next week, he will be turn to what McCurry calls "momentum building" in predominantly Democratic areas.
"George Bush has a very simple strategy," Kerry said in Xenia. "It is ignore it, deny it and then try to hide it. This has been the zero-accountability administration. In fact, this administration keeps the people who make mistakes and fires the people who tell the truth."
-- Bush's closing theme: Kerry's "do-nothing liberal record" vs. the president's leadership on terrorism. Kerry as president would raise taxes, Bush warns; if he's re-elected, he'll cut them. Those arguments are designed to energize his core supporters. He is campaigning mostly in Republican-leaning areas.
On Saturday, Bush talked about the war on terror and reminded a crowd that it was the one-year anniversary of Kerry's vote against a $87 million appropriation for Iraq and Afghanistan. On Thursday, he'll give a speech on health care.
"At a time of great threat for our country, at a time of great challenge in the world, the commander in chief must stand on principle, not on the shifting sands of political convenience," Bush said Saturday in Daytona Beach, Fla. "The differences are clear when it comes to defending the country. Sen. Kerry proposed that we should pass a 'global test' before we defend ourselves. ... I'll work with our allies, I'll build coalitions, but I will never turn over our national security decisions to leaders of other countries."
Then there are the surrogate speakers for both sides: Wives and children, governors and senators, actors and NASCAR drivers, soccer players and 9/11 widows. A Republican who combines the credentials of governor and movie star, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, offered to go to one state. He may be dispatched to Ohio.
Democrats hope former president Bill Clinton will have recovered enough from heart-bypass surgery to rally the party's most faithful voters in the closing days.
On the air: Not a moment to spare
There's no President Gore running for re-election this year in part because his campaign didn't have enough money left in the final weeks of the 2000 election to counter Bush's TV advertising in critical states, according to analyses by political scientists and communications experts.
Win or lose, Kerry's campaign has avoided that bind. Both campaigns have husbanded their resources to finance the most expensive barrage of political ads in the history of American politics over the next two weeks.
On some local channels in battleground states, in places like Miami and Green Bay, Wis., there is no longer a moment of advertising time left to buy.
From now to Election Day:
-- The Kerry campaign has $15 million to $25 million left to spend on TV ads, according to a USA TODAY analysis of campaign ad spending. The money comes from the $75 million in federal funds Kerry received after accepting his party's nomination and another $16 million in Democratic Party funds that his campaign controls. The campaign has spent about $36 million on TV ads since Labor Day.
The Democratic Party also has been spending $6 million to $8 million a week on TV ads attacking Bush from an independent fund. It's expected to keep up that pace.
Kerry's ads are likely to continue the themes he's used so far. His ads have been divided between attacks on Bush's record, including the latest spot on the flu vaccine, and sales pitches on the senator's ideas for the nation's future. Some ads are tailored to specific states - noting, for example, how many jobs have been lost in Ohio during Bush's tenure.
-- The Bush campaign, which like Kerry's camp has accepted federal funding and its rules, has an estimated $10 million to $20 million left to spend on TV ads. It has spent $45 million to $50 million to air ads since Labor Day.
The Republican National Committee, which has spent almost nothing on TV ads on Bush's behalf this year, is ready to unleash millions of dollars worth of ads per day in the most competitive states.
Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the Bush campaign, for months has said that the final weeks of the campaign would be dominated by "vision" ads that aim to convince voters the president has a plan for safely leading the nation through threatening times.
But the Bush team also has demonstrated its ability to produce an attack ad within hours of seeing an opening. Last week, the campaign unveiled spots that blasted Kerry's health care plan and his comment in the first debate about a "global test" for military action. The ad being released today attacks Kerry's record on fighting terrorism without mentioning Bush.
-- Independent groups continue unprecedented media buys intended to build up one candidate or tear down the other.
The left-leaning Media Fund is running ads in Ohio and Wisconsin, states that have been hit with job losses, that assail Bush's economic policies. An affiliate of MoveOn.org, a group funded in part by billionaire George Soros, is on the air in four states with an emotional spot that features the mother of a soldier slain in Iraq.
The right-leaning Progress for America is spending at least $12 million in key states this month on an ad that praises the president for leadership in challenging times. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and POWs for Truth, two groups of Vietnam veterans opposed to Kerry, are airing ads in three states that attack Kerry's antiwar efforts when he returned from Vietnam three decades ago.
And The November Fund, partly financed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is running ads in several states assailing trial lawyers. That's the occupation of Sen. John Edwards, Kerry's running mate.
On the ground: Running for sheriff
Political veterans in battleground states say the biggest difference between this year's campaign and the ones that have gone before is the element that is about to be fully unleashed: the ground game.
For months, the campaigns and advocacy groups have been working the phones and pounding the pavement to identify sympathetic voters and recruit volunteers. From now until the polls close, the volunteers will labor to ensure that the voters they have targeted actually cast ballots. "At the end of the day, it's going to be, who can get their voters to the polls?" says Pat Tiberi, a Republican congressman from central Ohio.
Bush and Kerry have created the sort of grass-roots campaigns more typical of candidates for local office. It's as if they were running for sheriff in thousands of counties across the battleground states.
"I've lived in my ward since I was 6 years old," Tiberi says. "I can never remember a presidential campaign knocking on my door or my parents' door." This year, it has happened more than once.
The numbers are staggering.
-- Steve Rosenthal, a veteran organizer who heads a liberal, labor-backed group called Americans Coming Together, says in the final 21/2 weeks of the campaign that his group will make 12 million phone calls, send 21 million pieces of mail and distribute 11 million fliers. On Election Day, it will deploy 45,000 volunteers in 14 states.
-- Bush officials say they have enlisted more than 1.2 million volunteers and signed up chairmen in every county in the country. In battleground states, they have chairmen in every precinct. A "walk the vote" initiative this weekend intended to reach 1.6 million voters.
Republicans argue their operation is superior, in part because it is integrated with the Bush campaign. The Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee are counting in part on independent groups like Rosenthal's.
In Milwaukee on the day after the last presidential debate, union leaders working out of a converted warehouse downtown distributed Palm Pilots loaded with door-to-door information that had been gathered over recent months about voters in key precincts. Workers were heading out on a "KnOctober Canvass" sponsored by Americans Coming Together.
Nearby, at the county GOP's storefront headquarters, everyone who showed up asking for a Bush-Cheney yard sign also was given a flier asking them to sign up for the "Final Five" - a marathon of phone calling and door-knocking in the remaining days of the campaign.
Craig Martin, 48, a photographer from Whitefish Bay, Wis., was one of them. He says he's never displayed a sign in an election that was so contentious but the close contest convinced him that he should. "It just seemed more important to get out and do something this year," Martin says.
CNN has to admit its that big huh... what does make Bush's lead really?
Finally some good news!
NO they don't the headline at CNN.com is...
"Poll: Presidential race still tight"
You gotta understand that that whole 'Likely voter' Crap does'nt mean anything. What the hell is a likely voter? A voter likely to vote? These polls do not take in to consideration new registered voters who have never voted before, or just registered voters in general. I say screw the pollsters and just get it over with already! This election is driving me nuts!
From your posts, I can see it was a short drive.
polls are like opinions which are like feet, everyone has them and they all stink.
Yeah, it's interesting how they buried the 52% to 44% numbers in the 3rd or 4th paragraph of their article on the poll. Their headline is the percentage of registered voters, Bush leading 49% to 46%(within the margin of error) instead of the poll of likely votors. Always interesting to see how each news service spins things - USA Today's front page says "BUSH LEADS BY 8 POINTS" or something like that. Same poll, two different takes on it.
I notice when a poll has good news for Bush it is buried and when a poll has bad news for Bush it's the lead story whether in print, radio or TV.