Bush's grim poll numbers.
If you've read or watched news reports about polls taken since the Democratic convention, you've probably heard that John Kerry didn't get much of a "bounce." These reports miss the important data. Let's look at the numbers.
1. What's changed. Three major media polls have been taken since the convention: ABC News/Washington Post, CBS News/New York Times, and CNN/USA Today. Prior to the convention, Kerry's favorable rating was nine points higher than his unfavorable rating in the ABC poll. Since the convention, this margin has grown to 19 points. Bush's positive margin on the same question is just two points.
In a CBS poll before the convention, the percentage of voters who were uneasy about Kerry's ability to handle an international crisis was 19 points higher than the percentage who were confident in his ability to handle such a crisis. After the convention, that margin of unease has shrunk to 11 points. Bush's negative margin on the same question is 12 points. In the CBS pre-convention poll, voters said by a 51-36 margin that the Democrats did not have a clear plan for the country. After the convention, they say by a 44-40 margin that the Democrats do have a clear plan.
In a CNN poll before the convention, voters agreed by a 12-point margin that Kerry had "the personality and leadership qualities a president should have." After the convention, the margin is 20—eight points higher than the margin for Bush on the same question. Before the convention, by a 51-43 margin, voters trusted Bush rather than Kerry "to handle the responsibilities of commander-in-chief of the military." Now the candidates are even. Before the convention, more voters trusted Bush than Kerry "to protect U.S. citizens from future acts of terrorism." Now more voters trust Kerry than trust Bush.
2. Trial heats. Before the convention, Bush led Kerry 48-46 among registered voters in the ABC poll. After the convention, Kerry leads 50-44. In the CBS poll, Kerry turned a 45-42 lead into a 48-43 lead. The CNN/USA poll goes the other way, boosting Bush from a 47-43 deficit to a 48-47 lead. That's counterintuitive, given the pro-Kerry media coverage around the convention. It doesn't square with the CBS or ABC polls. Nor does it square with an American Research Group poll, which bumps Kerry from a 47-44 lead to a 49-45 lead, or a Newsweek poll—taken on the last night of the convention and the night afterward—which bumps Kerry from 47-44 to 49-42. So my guess is that the CNN poll is off the mark.
Look at the numbers for Kerry in these trial heats: 50, 48, 49, 49. Even in the CNN poll, he's got 47. Kerry is that close to making a Bush victory mathematically impossible. And look at Bush's numbers: 44, 43, 45, 42. Even the 48 percent for Bush in the CNN poll is too low, given how few undecided voters show up for the incumbent on Election Day.
3. Bush's flat line. Look at the data going back to February. Over that period, Bush's top score in the ABC trial heat is 48. In the CBS and ARG polls, it's 46. During that time, Newsweek has repeatedly asked respondents, "Would you like to see George W. Bush re-elected to another term as president, or not?" The percentage saying Bush deserves re-election hasn't risen above 46. The percentage saying he doesn't deserve re-election hasn't fallen below 50. During the same period, Zogby surveys have repeatedly asked voters, "Do you think George W. Bush deserves to be re-elected as president of the United States, or is it time for someone new?" The percentage saying Bush deserves to be re-elected hasn't risen above 45. The percentage saying it's time for someone new hasn't fallen below 51.
Bush's job approval rating has been net negative in CBS surveys since April. Over the same period, his approval rating in ABC polls peaked at 51 but has been net negative in five of seven samplings. Even in the CNN poll, Bush's approval rating has been below 50 in four of the five surveys this year, including the latest. And in CBS surveys, the percentage of voters saying that things in the United States are on the wrong track hasn't fallen below 51 percent all year. The percentage saying things are moving in the right direction hasn't risen above 42 percent. In the post-convention CBS poll, 59 percent say we're on the wrong track. Only 36 percent say we're going in the right direction.
4. Locking up support. Given how close Kerry is to 50 percent, Bush can't afford to let Kerry solidify his support. But that's exactly what Kerry is doing. In ABC polls since June, the percentage of Kerry supporters saying there's a good chance they'll change their mind has fallen from 12 to 5 percent. That's two points lower than the percentage of Bush supporters who say the same. In ABC's pre-convention survey, only 72 percent of Kerry's voters supported him strongly. In the post-convention survey, that number has risen to 85—virtually equal to Bush's 86.
Four years ago, based on numbers less grim than these, I said Bush was toast. Gore had passed Bush, and I thought the numbers couldn't turn around. I was wrong. They could, and they did, and they could again. But this time, Bush is the incumbent. It's hard to imagine what he can say from here on out that's going to change people's minds about him. And it's hard to imagine what he can say about Kerry that he hasn't already said in scores of millions of dollars worth of ads. At the very least, it's Kerry's race to lose.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.