COLUMBUS, Ohio—Is it time for Democrats to panic? If you're a John Kerry supporter, here's some bad news to chew on: Despite winning all three debates according to opinion polls, Kerry hasn't taken the horse-race lead in a single poll that's been released since the third debate, and he seems to be trending the wrong way. Time polled voters on Thursday and Friday and turned up a statistical tie among likely voters, 48 percent for President Bush, 46 percent for Kerry, with a 4 point margin of error. Newsweek's poll, taken over the same period with a 4 point margin of error, shows Kerry with only 44 percent among likely voters. Bush gets 50 percent. When the Zogby tracking poll added the day after the debate to its sample, Bush's lead over Kerry increased from 46-45 to 48-44, with a 2.9 point margin of error. The Washington Post daily tracking poll for Friday, Oct. 15, shows Bush opening a 50 to 47 lead over Kerry; the 3 point margin is equal to the poll's margin of error.
Oh, and there's one more poll to report. The Post asked voters on Thursday night whether Kerry's comment during the debate about Mary Cheney was "inappropriate." Not many undecideds here: 64 percent said inappropriate, while 33 percent said appropriate. With a 6 point margin of error, the best statistical case for Kerry is that he offended only 58 percent of the electorate. Of course, just because Kerry offended people doesn't mean he changed anybody's vote, just as winning a debate doesn't necessarily translate into ballots. But if you're searching for the Occam's Razor explanation for Kerry's small but noticeable slide in the polls since Wednesday, his comment about Mary Cheney is probably it.
There is some good news for Democrats, beyond the usual caveats about polls and statistics: The Post poll, taken Wednesday through Friday, shows Kerry with a 10 point lead, 53 to 43, over Bush among likely voters in 13 battleground states. That's consistent with what the Kerry campaign was saying before the third debate, when advisers would acknowledge trailing Bush nationally by about 2 points, but at the same time they said Kerry was much stronger than that in the battlegrounds.
The election's key states have narrowed dramatically in the past week or so, and most people believe the most important states will be Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and maybe Minnesota and New Hampshire. There's Pennsylvania, too, but if Kerry can't win there, he might as well give up now. Twice since the third debate—Thursday morning in Las Vegas and again Saturday in Jeffersonville, Ohio—Mike McCurry has said the Kerry campaign wants to wait as much as 48 hours to see how the battleground is shaping up. For now, Kerry is spending the next three days in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Iowa. John Edwards is scheduled for Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ohio.
The most interesting item on Bush's schedule is a Monday event in Marlton, New Jersey. Is the Garden State seriously up for grabs, or is Karl Rove repeating the error he made four years ago when he sent Bush to campaign in California late in the election, when time would have been better spent increasing the Republican margin in Florida? McCurry says neither: "We don't believe they're going into New Jersey. We think they're going into eastern Pennsylvania," he said in Jeffersonville. (Marlton is about 15 miles east of Philadelphia, and the trip will be covered by the Philly media.) "We'll take it seriously when they buy in the New York media market." The national political press will take the idea of a Kerry slide in the polls seriously if the next Gallup Poll confirms it.