Inside the numbers: November

Posted: Mar 23, 2004 12:00 AM

The latest results of our InsiderAdvantage national poll in the presidential race show President George W. Bush back on top in a tight race against Sen. John Kerry. The same survey offers a glimpse into why Kerry has fallen from the wide lead he enjoyed over Bush just last month. Following are the poll results:

Question: If the presidential election were held today, for whom would you vote?

George W. Bush 46 percent
John Kerry 41 percent
Ralph Nader/Someone Else 4 percent
Undecided/Don't Know 9 percent

The InsiderAdvantage survey was conducted with our associates, The Marketing Workshop, on March 18-19. It surveyed 500 registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

These results come amid great turmoil on the U.S. political scene and in the international arena. Early campaign attack ads already have aired on TV; the candidates and their surrogates have traded barbs usually not heard until late in a presidential campaign; and the world again has the jitters following the tragic bombings in Spain.

The net result seems to be a tightening presidential race that departs from both the stratospherically high numbers Bush once enjoyed long before the Democratic primaries, and from Kerry's reported double-digit lead just over a month ago. Kerry's tumble likely can be traced to the flurry of Bush TV ads that paint Kerry as weak on national security and keen on higher taxes. The same survey asked voters if in the last month their opinion of Kerry has become more or less favorable than previously. Twenty-five percent said less favorable, 20 percent said more favorable, and the rest said either "the same" or had no opinion.

The most telling insight on Kerry's poll slippage can be found when the poll numbers are broken down by political affiliation. Among the critical segment of voters who describe themselves as "independents," 28 percent had a less favorable opinion of Kerry from a month ago. Only 15 percent held a more favorable view. As Jeff Shusterman of The Marketing Workshop puts it, "That's the swing vote, and right now it's 'swinging' back in Bush's direction."

Will Ralph Nader's third-party candidacy pull badly needed votes away from Kerry? Time will tell. Today Nader's support is low, and that makes it hard for any poll to get a strong read on exactly where that support is coming from. Early indications are that his likely votes may be coming as much from fringe Republicans who want to make a protest statement of some sort as they do from Democrats and other liberals generally thought to be likely Nader followers.

The InsiderAdvantage poll follows closely on the heels of a CBS/New York Times survey that also showed Bush with a modest lead. Both surveys had Bush and Kerry as being either ahead in the race or very close to the lead, within the margins of error. I have little doubt these polls accurately reflect current sentiment among the American public.

The key question is what these numbers will be next month. Will the president's early attack ads continue to eat into Kerry's support? Or will the sputtering stock market and an increasingly pronounced anti-American attitude abroad create a feeling of discontent and unease among voters?

It may well be that no single issue will decide the presidential race as much as the overall image each candidate projects. That jostling for a positive image will be the true battleground as the campaign unfolds. Kerry must find a way to appeal more to women and independents, both traditionally strong demographics for the Democrats. Bush currently is bucking that tradition; he is capturing a remarkable 15 percent more of women voters than Kerry, and 17 percent more independents!

As for Bush, he must make a better appeal to self-described political moderates, who currently favor Kerry by a substantial margin.

Of course, 9 percent don't yet know for whom they will vote, so plenty of room remains for another photo finish presidential race. If there's a difference so far between 2004 and earlier presidential campaigns, it's mainly the early blitz of TV ads this time and the fact that the race is already extremely close; usually these two phenomena don't come about until summer or thereabouts.