Introduction and Summary
With less than a week to go before the presidential election, George W. Bush’s advantage with the voters on personal qualities is now trumping Al Gore’s edge on the issues. A steadily growing plurality has come to see the GOP candidate as more likable, more honest, more able to get things done, and fewer worry about his qualifications for the presidency. At the same time, voters increasingly see the vice president as a typical politician, and his personality is cited as a reason for opposing his candidacy by a greater percentage than did so before the presidential debates. Gore is confronting these adverse trends despite the fact that voters have more confidence in him than his opponent to deal with health care, Social Security and the economy.
Consequently, while the horse race remains close, for the first time since July Bush has a slight edge over Gore among likely voters, 47% to 43% in the latest Pew Research Center survey. The Pew poll, the third survey since early October, was conducted among 1,963 adults, including 1,508 registered voters (1,062 likely voters), from Oct. 25-29.
While there is nothing conclusive about Bush’s small margin given the fluidity of voter attitudes in this cycle, it does suggest that voters may be drifting in a Republican direction as Election Day approaches. The favorable trend for Bush is most apparent over the past month among seniors, white Catholics, middle- to high-income voters and those in union households.
Voters mostly cite issue positions as reasons for backing their choice for president, but personal qualities — including leadership and experience — are the predominant basis for not supporting a candidate. Personal questions are also offered up frequently by swing voters as reasons for their uncertainty. Those who have not yet firmly decided how they will vote most often voice questions about Bush’s qualifications for the presidency. Doubts about Gore are broader: swing voters worry about his personality, truthfulness, and ties with President Clinton. In that regard, when asked directly, a 55% majority of swing voters say they prefer that Gore be less, not more, like Clinton.
There are signs that voters are slowly coming to terms with the decision they will make on Nov. 7. The poll finds fewer voters on the fence: The percentage of voters who still may switch their vote has inched down from 17% in early October and 16% in mid-October to 13% in the current poll. The percentage of undecideds, the other component of the swing vote category, remains stable at 7% — about what it was four years ago at this time.
Although a majority of voters say they are very interested in voting in the upcoming election because of the tightness of the race, prospects are dim that voter turnout will significantly exceed the level of four years ago. Measures of voter engagement in the current campaign suggest that electoral participation will probably mirror 1996 (when 49% of age-eligible citizens voted) rather than 1992 (when 55% voted). For now, the likely voter pool continues to look only somewhat more Republican than all registered voters. This is similar to 1988 when likely voters backed Bush over Dukakis by only a few points more than did all potential voters. In 1996 likely voters skewed even more Republican than did all registered voters.
The prospect of an even larger GOP turnout advantage, however, is seen in the fact that Gore voters are somewhat less enthusiastic about going out to vote for their candidate than are Bush backers. Underscoring this enthusiasm gap, fully 37% of Democrats say they don’t see a big difference between Gore and Bush on the issues, compared to just 26% of Republicans. Some Democrats are demoralized. The percentage of Democrats expecting a Bush win has grown from 13% in early October to 25% in the current survey. But Clinton still has the potential to energize the Democratic base — unlike swing voters, a plurality of Democrats say they wish Gore were more like the president.
Abortion never emerged as a major topic in the campaign, but it still is very much on the minds of some voters. Surprisingly, those who say issues are motivating them to support Gore and Bush rate abortion almost as high as more widely-debated issues like Social Security and health care. Bush supporters who set issues as a priority cite abortion as often as taxes when giving reasons for backing the Texas governor. And while it ranks below education and Social Security for Gore’s issue-oriented supporters, it is on par with health care as a reason to support Gore.
Bush’s Intensity Edge
While the race is still extremely tight, Bush continues to enjoy stronger backing from his supporters than does Gore from his. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Bush voters say they strongly support the Texas governor. Gore gets strong support from 55% of those who say they will vote for him. In addition, Bush voters are somewhat less likely than Gore voters to say they might change their minds and vote for the other candidate. Only 9% of Bush supporters say there’s a chance they might vote for Gore, compared to 14% of Gore voters who say there’s a chance they might for Bush.
Overall, the pool of swing voters has diminished slightly in recent weeks. One-in-five voters (20%) now fall into this group, down from 23% in mid-October and 25% earlier in this month.
Among registered voters who currently support the Texas governor, fully 75% fall into the likely voter category; 68% of Gore’s voters are classified as likely to vote. This accounts for the fact that Bush’s lead over Gore widens when the pool of voters is narrowed from all registered voters to the 50% of the electorate who are most likely to turn out.
In recent weeks, Bush has solidified his lead with men. The gender gap is firmly in place as the candidates head into the final week of campaigning. Men favor Bush by a margin of 49%-39%, while women favor Gore 48%-40%. And Bush has made steady gains among older voters over the past month. Seniors now divide evenly between Gore and Bush (44%-45%). In early October, they favored Gore by a wide margin (50%-38%). Most of the erosion in Gore’s support has come from older men, who narrowly favored the vice president earlier this month and now lean toward Bush. Young voters continue to vacillate between the two major party candidates — favoring Gore by a wide margin in mid-October and now dividing evenly between the two, with 8% supporting Ralph Nader.
Gore has lost some ground among union voters in recent weeks. Though he still leads Bush among voters in union households, his advantage has narrowed from 31 points in mid-October to 12 points now. Voters from non-union households continue to narrowly favor Bush. Independents remain split — 40% preferring Bush and 36% choosing Gore. Swing voters prefer Gore over Bush (30%-20%).