Campaigns debate meaning of Kerry's recent dip in polls

Too soon to tell whether candidate is in trouble

Election 2004

October 19, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ORLANDO, Fla. - John Kerry, one week after he pulled even with President Bush in public polls, has begun to slide again in some national surveys as the race enters its most intense phase.

The new numbers, which Kerry's campaign aides discount as unreliable and out of whack with their own polling figures, may reflect nothing more than a temporary slip for the Democratic senator in the last two weeks of an extremely tight race. But they may signal the beginning of a larger shift among voters in Bush's favor at a critical time.

Kerry's performance against Bush in the three presidential debates drew favorable reviews, and surveys in their aftermath showed viewers believed Kerry had won the face-to-face duels. But in the days since, several polls have shown Kerry losing ground against the president, raising the possibility that voters saw a candidate they are unwilling to support.

Several pollsters said they are not ready to predict trouble for Kerry. But if the movement continues well into this week, they said, it would spell peril for the Democrat.

"You can't confirm that trend until it's the end of the week," said Ed Sarpolus, a Michigan-based independent pollster who said it would take a few more days before the complete results of the debates would filter through the electorate. But, he added, "if they continue by the end of the week, then I'd say there'd be a problem for Kerry."

The largest margin in Bush's favor was in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Oct. 14-16 that showed the president with an 8-point advantage among likely voters, with 52 percent compared to Kerry's 44 percent. The poll, whose results have often differed sharply with those of other surveys, showed a much narrower 3-point gap among registered voters, with Bush leading Kerry 49 percent to 46 percent. The margin of error was 3 percent.

A Newsweek poll also conducted Oct. 14-16 showed Bush with a six-point edge, with 50 percent to Kerry's 44 percent in a 4 percent margin of error. That poll, too, showed a smaller margin among registered voters, with the president ahead 48 percent to 46 percent.

Other surveys, including a daily Washington Post tracking poll, showed Bush ticking up slightly over Kerry or the two candidates still essentially tied. A new CBS/New York Times poll conducted Oct. 14-17 showed Bush and Kerry statistically even. And a Zogby poll conducted Oct. 15-17 showed Bush and Kerry in a dead heat, with 45 percent each.

"I wouldn't come to any grand conclusions about this yet," said Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center. "There's been so much variability in these polls, I'd give it another day or two."

Kerry campaign aides say they place little stock in the seemingly discouraging numbers, attributing them to a polling methodology that they say does not take into account who is actually going to vote in this year's election.

"Our read on the race is it's a very close horse race," said Tad Devine, a Kerry campaign strategist. "We feel confident about where we are. We think we've made tremendous progress, and we have the resources to go toe-to-toe with the president right up until Election Day."

Democrats say that surveys of so-called "likely voters" are misleading, because they do not account for the ambitious voter-registration effort launched this year by the party and independent groups working on Kerry's behalf.

"A lot of the flopping around, frankly, has to do with this `likely voter' methodology that a lot of people are using," Devine said. He said it was "not representative of what the electorate is likely to look like."

And Democrats are taking heart in the fact that Bush, although he leads his opponent in some polls, still has not broken above 50 percent in his approval rating - a key measure of an incumbent's re-election chances.

Bush, Devine said, "is nowhere near where he needs to be to win the race."

Kohut agreed the figures are not encouraging for Bush.

"As long as the president's approval ratings are below 50 percent, he is at risk for re-election, and the question is whether the public will see Senator Kerry now as an acceptable alternative."

The wide variability in polling results stems in part from the different methodologies public opinion researchers use to figure out who is most likely to go to the polls on Election Day. Surveying registered voters is informative only up to a point, the theory goes, because what counts in predicting elections are the opinions of people who are going to cast ballots.

Still, in a year when Democrats and independent groups supporting them have poured millions of dollars into registering new voters, measuring "likely voters" becomes more challenging. Kerry's advisers argue it is next to impossible.

Kerry's advisers note that Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg's most recent Democracy Corps poll, conducted Oct. 14-16 with a 3.1 percent margin of error, has Kerry ahead, with 50 percent support to 47 percent for Bush. But more important, they say, are surveys that show Kerry winning in key states that may decide the winner on Nov. 2.

"This election is not going to take place nationally; it's going to take place in the battleground states," Joe Lockhart, a senior Kerry campaign adviser, told reporters on Sunday, "and that's really the number that matters."

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