WASHINGTON – Unless President Bush or Sen. John Kerry commits a gaffe in the next 13 days,the presidential election will be another photo finish,pollsters and campaign officials said Wednesday.
Recent polls have made for a confusing picture. Some show Bush with a 7-point lead and others have the candidates tied at 48 percentage points,pollsters said at a roundtable discussion.
“I don't know who will win,” said Peter Hart of Hart Research Associates,which has conducted the NBC/Wall Street Journal polls for 15 years. “This is a dead-heat election 14 days out.”
Two campaign officials said the race will come down to the seven or eight crucial “swing states,” Ohio and Florida chief among them.
About 12 percent of voters are still “persuadable,” the pollsters said,meaning they favor one candidate but could change their minds.
That bodes well for Kerry because that group of voters tends to be more moderate,less religious and about 28 percent minorities,whereas minorities make up 17 percent of the total electorate,Hart said.
Hart said his polling group asked voters to identify which set of priorities is more important to them: terrorism and social values or health care and the economy. While the total electorate splits evenly on those issues,a considerable number of “persuadable” voters choose health care and the economy,Kerry's strong points,he said.
Also,undecided voters generally lean against the incumbent president,said Neil Newhouse,co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies,a survey research firm.
Howard Wolfson,a consultant for the Democratic National Committee,said the Kerry campaign will “walk and chew gum at the same time,” hitting on both foreign and domestic issues.
“We think it's very difficult to defy the laws of gravity,” he said,referring to the likelihood that Kerry will attract the persuadable voters.
Republican strategist Frank Donatelli said the campaign will steer the debate toward who can better wage the “global war on terror,” where Bush has a solid advantage. He said the campaign is painting the election as a choice between conservative and liberal values. He said while Bush proudly touts his conservatism,Kerry has avoided “the ‘L' word” and tried to make himself seem moderate.
Donatelli said he doubts that 12 percent of the electorate is actually persuadable.
“These candidates have been going at each other for nine months,” he said. “If there are persuadable voters out there,they sure aren't paying attention.”
But Donatelli conceded it isn't good for Bush if he's wrong about the number.
Hart and Newhouse agreed there is one crucial factor that's difficult to measure: how many Bush and Kerry supporters will actually vote.
The campaign officials said both camps are spending an unprecedented amount of time and money making sure their supporters in swing states get to the polls.
“There's no way to know right now who has the better the ground game,” Donatelli said.
Hart predicted turnout will be unusually high. He said his research shows that 72 percent of voters say the race matters to them either “a great deal” or “quite a bit.” That is up sharply from 46 percent in the 1992 election between Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush and 40 percent in the 1996 election between Clinton and Bob Dole. Hart Research did not pose that question to voters in 2000,an analyst with the firm said.
Hart said it's the best election since John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in 1960.
“The electorate is more energized and passionate than I've ever seen,” he said.
The pollsters said media organizations will be reluctant to call the election early on Nov. 2 given the controversy in 2000 when television networks called the race for Democrat Al Gore,then for Bush,then declared it was too close to call.
Both parties have mobilized teams of lawyers in case there are disputed results,as there were in Florida in 2000. Donatelli and Wolfson said each campaign wants to avoid a similar situation.
Hart said he's not holding his breath: “Sleep up on Nov. 1 because it's going to be a very long Nov. 2 and into Nov. 3.”