Bush isn't toast. Neither is Kerry.

Politics and policy.
Sept. 7 2004 5:53 PM

Warm Bread Revisited

Bush isn't toast. Neither is Kerry.

A month ago, after John Kerry's convention, I flagged trends in several national polls and concluded that President Bush was in serious trouble. Now that Bush has had his convention, let's look at fresh numbers and re-examine those trends.

1. The bounce. Kerry gained substantially in several measures after the Democratic Convention. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll before the convention, voters agreed by a 12-point margin that he had "the personality and leadership qualities a president should have." After the convention, the margin rose to 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." After the convention, the candidates were even.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Where do those numbers stand in the same poll after the GOP convention? Likely voters now agree by only a six-point margin that Kerry has "the personality and leadership qualities a president should have." That's six points below where he started and 13 points below the margin for Bush on the same question. Bad news for him. But voters now trust Bush rather than Kerry "to handle the responsibilities of commander-in-chief of the military" by just a six-point margin. That's two points better for Kerry than where he started before the Democratic Convention.

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2. Trial heats. In the CNN poll after the Democratic Convention, Bush led 48-47. In an American Research Group poll, Kerry led 49-45. In a Newsweek poll taken on the last night of the convention and the night afterward, Kerry's lead jumped from 47-44 to 49-42. Looking at Kerry's vote share in these and other polls—50 and 48, respectively, in the case of ABC News/Washington Post and CBS News/New York Times surveys conducted around the same time—I wrote, "Kerry is that close to making a Bush victory mathematically impossible."

Now the threat is reversed. Bush stands at 52 among likely voters in the CNN poll and among registered voters in surveys by Newsweek and Time. The margin in the Newsweek poll ballooned suspiciously on the night of Bush's speech, as it did on the night of Kerry's speech. But three polls converging on the number 52 can't be ignored. Based on that number, Bush would win even if no undecided voters showed up for the incumbent on Election Day.

Two other surveys—ARG and Zogby—tell a different story. Zogby has Bush leading 46-43 among likely voters. ARG has the race tied at 47 among registered voters. If those numbers hold, the maxim that undecideds stay home or vote for the challenger suggests that Bush's number is still too low. Many reporters and strategists don't trust Zogby or ARG. But the heat-of-the-moment schedule of the Time and Newsweek convention polls (in addition to what critics see as oversampling of Republicans) makes them dubious, too.

3. Bush's ceiling. A month ago, I observed that on Newsweek's re-elect question—"Would you like to see George W. Bush re-elected to another term as president, or not?"—the percentage saying Bush deserved re-election hadn't risen above 46 all year, and the percentage saying he didn't deserve re-election hadn't fallen below 50. That ceiling has now been shattered. Bush wins that question 53-43 in the latest Newsweek survey—a 20-point net reversal from a month ago. In the Time survey, Bush's previous high score on the re-elect question this year was 49. Now it's 51.

Again, Zogby and ARG tell a different story. After Kerry's convention, I noted that in ARG trial heats going back to February, Bush hadn't risen above 46. That's still true among registered voters. Among likely voters, Bush stands at 48. But that's still dangerously low. I also pointed out that on Zogby's re-elect question—"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 deserved to be re-elected hadn't risen above 45 since February, and the percentage saying it was time for someone new hadn't fallen below 51. Now Bush has lowered the "time for someone new" number to 48—enough to give him a chance. But the "deserves re-election" number is still perilously low at 46.

I see three salient lessons in these numbers. First, Bush has broken the ceiling that appeared to limit him all year. Even if his gains from the GOP convention fade, several polls now provide evidence that enough voters are open to him to carry him to victory. This wasn't true before his convention. It is now. This is enormously important.

Second, Kerry's position isn't nearly as dire as many Democrats imagine. He has maintained some of the gains from his own convention. And two of the five major polls released since the Republican Convention show him holding the incumbent three to four points below 50, with a Bush lead somewhere between zero and the margin of error. That's nothing to write home about. It's nothing to write in your suicide note, either.