Newsweek Poll: Too Close to Call

With just 17 days remaining in the race to the White House, President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry remain locked in a dead heat, according to the NEWSWEEK poll, taken after Wednesday's final debate in Arizona. In a three-way race with Independent candidate Ralph Nader, 48 percent of all voters say they would reelect Bush while 46 percent prefer Kerry.

Removing Nader, who draws just 1 percent of the vote, bumps the Kerry-Edwards ticket up to 47 percent, reducing the incumbent's statistically insignificant lead to one point and suggesting that the independent candidate could pull a small number of votes away from the Democrat on Nov. 2. Before the debates began on Sept. 30, the Republican ticket held a commanding 11-point lead.

Results based on likely voters (as opposed to all registered voters) give Bush the edge, with Bush-Cheney pulling 50 percent of the vote and Kerry-Edwards drawing 44 percent in a three-way race (Nader still gets 1 percent). This suggests that turnout will be critical in determining the outcome of the election: Kerry now leads Bush 57 percent to 36 percent among those who identify themselves as first-time voters. The number of voters who say they are still open to switching candidates is actually fairly small, but still large enough to determine the popular vote winner: One in ten (11 percent) registered voters are still uncommitted.

Bush has a clear advantage with women, who prefer him 49 percent to 43 percent. Kerry has a slight edge with men, 50 percent to 46 percent. The Democrat also commands 50 percent of the youth vote (with Bush at 41 percent) and 54 percent of the senior vote (to Bush's 39 percent.) But Bush dominates the 30-49 set (56 percent to 39 percent). Voters aged 50 to 64 are split evenly, with 46 percent backing Bush and 48 percent Kerry.

Among the 64 percent of all registered voters who say they watched at least some of the latest debate, which focused largely on domestic issues, most (44 percent) declare Kerry the winner while 36 percent say Bush outperformed his challenger. Sixteen percent call it a draw (61 percent picked Kerry as the winner of the first debate). Kerry is viewed by debate-watchers as having a better command on the issues (49 to 43 percent), seeming more confident and self-assured (53 to 39 percent) and more likely to understand the concerns of "people like you" (49 to 43 percent). Still, Bush's demeanor on Wednesday led more people to see him as more personally likeable (48 to 43 percent).

More than one third (35 percent) of those polled say the debates will have a moderate or high influence on who gets their vote. And based on what they have learned from all debates, a quarter (25 percent) of the country's voters say they have become more inclined to vote for Kerry, compared to 16 percent who say they have been swayed by Bush. But most (56 percent) say the debates have had no difference in choosing who gets their vote.

Terrorism and the war in Iraq still rank highest (22 percent and 20 percent respectively) on the list of issues that will determine who voters choose. On both issues, Bush is the stronger candidate: He is preferred on terrorism 54 to 38 percent and on Iraq 51 to 41 percent. Kerry is stronger on key domestic issues. In order if importance to voters, Kerry is preferred to Bush on the economy (48 to 45 percent), health care and Medicare (50 to 42 percent), and American jobs and foreign competition (49 to 40 percent).

The two are tied at 45 percent on education, which comes next on voters' list of priorities. Bush's record of cutting taxes is preferred to Kerry's tax plan, 49 to 42 percent. Issues less pivotal to voters are the environment (51 to 34 percent in Kerry's favor), gay marriage (41 to 39 percent in Bush's favor), stem-cell research (54 to 32 percent in Kerry's favor) and abortion (44 to 42 percent in Bush's favor).

Kerry is seen as more intelligent and well-informed (down two points to 78 percent, compared to Bush's 61 percent, up three points) and as having strong leadership skills (steady at 55 percent, but still less than Bush's 63 percent). After gaining some momentum, Kerry is less likely to be seen as someone who can be trusted to make the right calls in an international crisis (47 percent, down four points and now lagging Bush's 53 percent).

Meanwhile, the president's approval ratings remain below the halfway mark (47 percent) for the second time since the GOP convention in late August. Nearly half of all voters (48 percent) still say they do not want to see Bush reelected, while 47 percent say they do. And more than half (55 percent) are dissatisfied with "the way things are going in this country" (compared to 40 percent satisfied).

Although the issue of stem-cell research was only briefly mentioned over the course of the debates, the question of whether federal funds should be used to finance more research in the field received new attention this week in the wake of the death of Christopher Reeve, the actor and advocate who died of complications related to his paralysis. Half (50 percent) of all voters support using federal money to fund research using stem cells used from human embryos while just over a third (36 percent) oppose it. Most of those who oppose it say they do so for religious or moral reasons (58 percent).

For the NEWSWEEK poll, Princeton Survey Research Associates interviewed 1,004 registered voters aged 18 and older between Oct. 14 and 15 by telephone. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.