One of the most divisive elections in U.S. history is entering its home stretch, and the race is tighter than ever. As John Kerry and President George W. Bush wage war in the battleground states--courting swing voters and the all-important undecideds--pollsters such as John Zogby, president and CEO of Zogby International, are trying desperately to track each minute shift in public sentiment. With many key states--Florida, Missouri, Tennessee, Iowa and Arkansas, among others--"too close to call," as Zogby puts it, making a prediction right now is impossible. "My balls are made of steel, not crystal," he says. But the veteran pollster did share some of his insights on the election with NEWSWEEK's Malcolm Beith shortly before the Republican convention in New York. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: The latest polls, including one by the L.A. Times, show Bush ahead for this first time this year.
ZOGBY: According to our last polls, Kerry is still ahead. These polls don't really change the way I see the race. The popular vote is close, with the edge to Kerry. And I think Kerry has the edge in many battleground states. If the election were today, it would be a close popular vote, but a not-so-close electoral vote.
Kerry didn't get much of a bounce from the Democratic convention. Will Bush fare better after the Republican National Convention?
This is not a big-bounce election. You really only have 5 percent hardcore undecideds. We're already in two warring camps. But yes, Bush will do better. I think he will at the very least recapture many disaffected Republicans.
We keep hearing about the importance of swing states and undecideds. How exactly will they determine this election?
Because there are so many of them that are too close to call, you're seeing candidates go to Native American tribes, tripping over each other to visit Arab-American communities. No group is too small this year. In terms of the undecideds, they traditionally break for the challenger. They know the incumbent, they've made up their minds. Now who's the new guy? We are coming out with an extensive poll of undecideds. The bottom line is they don't like the job [Bush] is doing. They're closer to the president, though, in terms of traditional values. They're closer to Kerry on issues. Take the economy for example--Kerry leads by double digits. For those who cite the war as the top issue, Kerry leads by double digits. Education, health care, Kerry by double digits. The issues are clearly with Kerry.
Do you believe current disapproval of Bush can be reversed?
It will be hard to turn around. The president is in the uncomfortable position of being beholden to situations beyond his control. What does he do about the economy between now and November? The war in Iraq, how can he manage that?
A recent Pew poll showed many Americans consider foreign policy to be a crucial election issue this year. Which candidate does this benefit most?
The president--you don't change captains in the middle of a war. Also, Kerry's position on the war has hardly been different. It's too nuanced for the undecideds to pick up. However, opposition to the war is growing, which does fuel Kerry as the anti-Bush.
Surveys also show that many Americans feel their country's standing in the world needs to be improved.
This is very important to groups already inclined against Bush--but apparently not to the undecideds. Still, issues like this keep the anger level up, and make a lot of people hang their raincoats and boots next to the door, ready to vote at a moment's notice, despite the weather.
So it will help turn out the vote. What about an October surprise--capturing Osama bin Laden, say? Would that bounce Bush to victory?
I call this the fourth bounce. Take a rubber ball and bounce it as hard as you can--physics takes over from there. The big bounce came after 9/11, but the president went right back down again. He jumped up again because of the war, but only to the high 60s rather than the high 80s. He went right back down in six weeks, to 50-50. On Dec. 15, Saddam was captured. A very big deal, but this time--the third bounce of the rubber ball--he went up to 57 in my poll and was back down in two weeks. My sense is that something like the capture of Osama bin Laden would give him a very small short bounce, not a long-lasting one.
How about a major attack in the United States?
Interestingly, that number has been zigzagging. I don't know where it'll end up.
And a major attack on U.S. soldiers or civilians in Iraq?
Anything in Iraq hurts the president right now. The most important thing is that we are approaching the 1,000 mark of American soldier losses, and that will be a very unfortunate front-page story for the president.
You believe this election is in Kerry's grasp?
Yes. It's his to lose.