NEW YORK – In this year’s sharply divided race for the White House, President George W. Bush continues to hold a slim lead over Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry, a FOX News poll released Tuesday shows. The president retains his spot as being seen as the stronger leader and the candidate who would do a better job on terrorism, while Kerry makes gains on handling of the economy and health care.
Most voters (79 percent) claim to have seen or heard at least part of Thursday night's presidential debate and by more than four-to-one, debate watchers believe Kerry won (66 percent to 15 percent), with 15 percent saying it was a tie. Almost seven in 10 watchers say the debate gave them a better sense of the candidates.
In this highly polarized time, did the debate move voters' intentions? Not much. By a thin margin, Bush leads Kerry 48 percent to 45 percent today in a head-to-head matchup among likely voters — within the poll's margin of error. In polling conducted in the week prior to the debate, Bush had a two-point edge. When independent candidate Ralph Nader (search) is included, he receives 1 percent, Bush 47 percent and Kerry 45 percent.
Opinion Dynamics Corporation (search) conducted the national poll of 1,000 likely voters for FOX News on October 3-4. "Likely voters" are defined as respondents who are considered more likely to vote in the November presidential election.
President Bush continues to receive stronger support among self-identified Republicans than Kerry receives among Democrats. Since early September, more than 90 percent of Republicans say they are backing Bush, while in comparison Kerry receives the support of just over 80 percent of Democrats. Bush currently has the lead among independents (50 percent to 39 percent), a group Kerry captured during late July and August.
Over half of voters have a favorable view of Bush (52 percent favorable and 43 percent unfavorable), unchanged from recent polling. Opinion of Kerry is more sharply divided: 46 percent of voters have a favorable opinion and 44 percent unfavorable.
Kerry's overall image failed to receive a boost from his debate performance, as his favorable rating actually went down one point. However, debate watchers are 10 points more likely than non-watchers to have a favorable view of Kerry.
Bush has a slight advantage when voters were asked which candidate they would rather watch on television for the next four years — Bush 43 percent and Kerry 41 percent, with 11 percent volunteering "neither."
On the Issues
There is no change in which candidate generally is deemed best to handle the top issues, but Kerry has made some gains. For example, by a 12-percentage point margin, Bush continues to top Kerry as the candidate who would do a better job on terrorism, down from a 15-point edge in pre-debate polling. On handling Iraq, the president's edge has also fallen three points to an eight-point edge today.
Kerry bests Bush by six points on handling the economy now, up from a one-point edge in late September, and by 16 points on health care, an improvement of four points.
Bush enjoys a double-digit advantage (+ 11 points) as the candidate who would do a better job "protecting your family" and a significant 19-percentage point lead on "better understands the threat of terrorism." In addition, by 44 percent to 33 percent, voters think the United States would be a safer place if Bush wins in November.
When the focus is on personal attributes, Bush maintains his considerable lead over Kerry as a stronger leader. Today, by 52 percent to 38 percent voters say Bush is a stronger leader, which is similar to polling conducted a month ago when Bush had 51 percent to Kerry's 35 percent (September 7-8).
"One question on the survey asked voters if they preferred a candidate who took strong stands even if they sometimes disagreed with him or one with whom they agreed even if he didn't seem strong in conviction," comments Opinion Dynamics President John Gorman. "By a 60 percent to 27 percent margin, they chose what might be called 'strong and wrong' over 'weak and right.' This is the essential frame the Bush campaign is pushing and so far it continues to sell — keeping the president in the race though not giving him any large lead. How the Kerry campaign deals with this public hunger for 'strength' is going to decide the race."
More voters describe Bush as "tough" (+ 33 points) and as "genuine" (+ 12 points), but more also see him as "arrogant" (+ 14 points). Slightly more voters think "sensible" describes Kerry (+3 points), and the Democrat also has a double-digit edge on being better described by the word "intelligent" — 47 percent to Bush's 25 percent, with 22 percent saying both are.
More than one in four (44 percent) think Bush is better described as "stubborn," 37 percent say "strong," and 14 percent say "both." For Kerry, views are divided on whether he is "flexible" (45 percent) or "indecisive" (41 percent).
By a narrow 43 percent to 39 percent margin voters say Bush is more honest and trustworthy.
President Bush's overall job rating moved above the 50 percent mark this week, as 53 percent approve and 43 percent disapprove. He receives his strongest ratings on the issue of terrorism: 53 percent approve and 41 percent disapprove. Bush receives negative ratings on the economy (45 percent approve, 49 percent disapprove) and on Iraq (45 percent approve, 50 percent disapprove).
The Nation's Economy
The nation's economy tops the list as the most important issue today, followed closely by terrorism and the war in Iraq. Twice as many voters now rate the economy as "only fair" or "poor" as say it is in "excellent" or "good" condition.
In addition, the number saying they are better off financially today compared to four years ago (40 percent) is only marginally higher than those saying they are worse off (34 percent), with a quarter saying "same." Those saying they are better off today overwhelmingly support Bush, while those saying they are worse off are equally supportive of Kerry.
Terrorism and Iraq
Nearly half of voters (47 percent) think the United States is "making progress" in the war against terrorism, while four in 10 say "losing ground." There is a large partisan gap on this issue: 85 percent of Republicans think progress is being made compared to 16 percent of Democrats.
A 56 percent majority agrees with the U.S. decision to go to war to remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. A majority of Democrats (67 percent) disagree with the decision to go to war — a decision Sen. Kerry calls a mistake.
The candidates give distinctly different descriptions of the Iraq situation and voters are unclear which is true. About a third (32 percent) think things in Iraq are closer to how Bush is describing them, 29 percent think Kerry comes closer, and about a third (32 percent) think neither candidate is accurately describing the current situation in Iraq.
Even so, a majority thinks it is likely that Iraq will successfully hold elections in January as scheduled.
• Pdf: Click here for full poll results.