Summary of Findings

A week’s worth of criticism of his pre-Sept. 11 record on terrorism has had little impact on President Bush’s support among voters. He is now running even with Sen. John Kerry in a head-to-head match-up among registered voters (47% Kerry- 46% Bush) after trailing Kerry by 52%-43% in mid-March. Voter opinions have been fluid in this early stage of the presidential contest, but Bush has held his own against Kerry with regard to personal qualities, while the Massachusetts senator has lost support on key issues like health care and jobs. And on the central question of which candidate would do the best job of defending the country against future terrorist attacks, Bush continues to lead Kerry by a wide margin (53%-29%).

The latest national survey of 1,501 Americans by the Pew Research Center, conducted March 22-28, finds Bush’s job approval ratings still sub-par (47% approve and 44% disapprove). Kerry’s strength continues to be on domestic issues, including health care, jobs and the economy, but voters’ confidence in Kerry has slipped, not grown, over the past two weeks. Today, Bush and Kerry run virtually even on the question of who can best improve economic conditions (44% Kerry, 39% Bush). Kerry held a sizable advantage on this issue in polling earlier this month.

Bush continues to hold the advantage on defending the country against terrorism, though slightly fewer back him over Kerry on this issue (53%, down from 57% in mid-March). Notably, the president has lost ground on terrorism among swing voters, just half of whom say he could do a better job than Kerry on this issue, down from 72% in mid-March. Yet Kerry has not gained ground on terrorism. Instead, a growing number of swing voters (37%, up from 17%) are undecided as to whether Bush or Kerry could do a better job of defending the country against future attacks.

Former White House aide Richard Clarke’s criticisms of the president’s anti-terrorism policies and the televised hearings of the 9/11 commission have not undermined impressions of Bush’s leadership abilities. Half of voters (51%) say the phrase “a strong leader” better describes Bush, while a third say that about Kerry. Opinion on that matter is virtually unchanged from mid-March (52% Bush/34% Kerry).

Bush’s other primary personal strength is the widely-held perception that he is “willing to take a stand, even if it’s unpopular.” Roughly six-in-ten (59%) say that better describes Bush while only about half that number (28%) believe it is a better description of Kerry.

Bush’s Personal Advantage

While Bush held a slight advantage over Al Gore on many personal traits through most of the 2000 election cycle, voters are even more favorably predisposed to Bush in terms of leadership, forcefulness, and effectiveness than was the case four years ago.

There is less consensus over which candidate would provide the best judgment in a crisis situation — 46% say Bush, 36% say Kerry, but Kerry has not gained on this trait over the past two weeks. Throughout the 2000 election, neither Bush nor Gore held a clear advantage in this area.

The public is split over which candidate is more honest and truthful, with 37% finding Bush to be more believable, and 38% Kerry. This mirrors early evaluations of Bush and Gore in the 2000 election cycle, when neither was seen as more credible; then, as now, a significant minority volunteered that neither candidate is particularly truthful.

At this early stage in the campaign, John Kerry’s strongest personal traits are his perceived empathy and friendliness, though even here he has no significant advantage. Voters are divided over which candidate is more personally likable (40% cite Kerry, 40% Bush). And 42% say Kerry “cares about people like me,” while 38% say this phrase better describes the current president.

Kerry Declines on Issues

By a wide margin (53% to 29%), more voters say Bush is the candidate who can best defend the country from future terrorist attacks. Bush also holds a sizable edge over his Democratic opponent in terms of making wise decisions about what to do in Iraq (49% to 37% for Kerry), and foreign policy decision-making in general (44% to 38%).

Importantly, Bush’s rating in these policy areas has not declined following news about Clarke’s book and testimony before the 9/11 commission.

In voters’ minds, Kerry’s strengths are in traditional Democratic issues — education, jobs, and health care, but even here there is significant volatility in how voters view the Democratic challenger as the campaign switches from one-sided attacks to the more typical give-and-take of an election campaign. Earlier this month, voters trusted Kerry more than Bush to improve the job situation and health care systems by margins of roughly two-to-one. Today, these margins are much tighter, as the percent expressing confidence in Kerry has declined.

In mid-March, 53% cited Kerry as better able to improve economic conditions, today 44% favor Kerry in this area. The percentage citing Bush has remained relatively stable, while the proportion saying they don’t know who would be better has increased. In fact, on a wide range of issues, from terrorism to the economy to health care, a growing number of voters are saying that they do not know which candidate would do a better job, or that neither is clearly preferable.

This volatility in evaluations of Kerry’s policy capabilities is not limited to domestic issues. Earlier this month, equal numbers cited Kerry and Bush as being best able to handle the situation in Iraq and make wise foreign policy decisions. But as in other issues, backing of Kerry has slipped significantly, while perceptions of Bush have remained stable.

Candidate Picture Unclear for Swing Voters

Overall, 38% of voters support Kerry and say they have definitely decided not to vote for Bush, and roughly the same number (36%) support Bush and say there is no chance they will vote for Kerry. The remaining portion of the electorate — 26% of all voters — have either expressed a preference for one of the candidates yet say they could still change their minds, or are truly undecided. And as the Bush and Kerry campaigns have begun seriously competing for the attention of these “swing” voters, the choices have become less, not more, distinct.

Swing voters are especially uncertain in assessing candidate abilities on complex issues such as trade policies and health care. Just over a quarter of swing voters (28%) feel Kerry could do better on trade and about as many (22%) favor Bush — but fully half of swing voters say they don’t see either candidate as better able to make wise decisions about U.S. trade policies. By comparison, just 12% and 13% of Bush and Kerry backers, respectively, are uncertain about which candidate could better handle trade policy.

The pattern is the same when it comes to everyday issues such as the economy, Iraq, and terrorism. Four times as many swing voters (39%) don’t know which candidate would do a better job improving economic conditions, compared with fewer than 10% of committed voters.

Fewer Swing Voters Favor Bush on Terrorism

Swing voters also are increasingly uncertain about which candidate can best defend the country against terrorism. In the survey conducted before Clarke’s allegations were widely publicized, fully 72% of swing voters said they felt Bush was the candidate best able to protect the U.S. from future terrorist attacks, while just 11% preferred Kerry.

The current survey finds only 50% citing Bush as stronger on this issue, though Kerry made no significant gains on this issue. The proportion of swing voters who don’t see either candidate as better on terrorism more than doubled from 17% to 37% as events have unfolded.

Clarke Interest Steady

The poll finds that nearly all Americans have heard about Clarke’s criticism of Bush’s anti-terrorism policies prior to 9/11. More than four-in-ten (42%) say they have heard a lot about Clarke, while 47% have heard a little. Just 10% say they have heard nothing about him. While Democrats and Republicans are equally likely to be aware of the charges, Kerry voters were more likely than Bush voters to say they’d heard a lot about Clarke.

Public awareness remained substantial throughout the interviewing period, which began March 22, the day after Clarke’s appearance on the CBS News program Sixty Minutes. But interest did not increase significantly after his testimony to the bipartisan commission investigating the 9/11 attacks on March 24.