• U.S.

Why It’s So Close

2 minute read
Michael Duffy

At least there’s no debating this: with roughly two weeks to go until the election, the presidential race is again locked in a virtual dead heat, according to a new TIME survey of likely voters. The narrow split– President George W. Bush leads Senator John Kerry by a statistically insignificant margin of 2 points, 48% to 46%, with Ralph Nader pulling in a solid 3%–can be seen across almost every measure in the survey.

Voters prefer Bush over his opponent for handling Iraq and the war on terrorism, but they favor Kerry when it comes to health care, the economy and understanding the needs of people like themselves. And in a surprising departure from earlier survey findings, the gender gap has disappeared, at least for now. In the two nights just after the final debate, male and female voters showed almost identical preferences: women favored Kerry over Bush 46% to 45%, while men preferred Bush to Kerry 47% to 46%.

With gasoline prices rising and violence flaring again in Iraq, the new poll is as much a measure of Bush’s continued resilience as it is of Kerry’s comeback since Labor Day, when a TIME survey indicated he had fallen 12 points behind Bush. The President has regained some of the ground he lost after the first debate, which most of those polled believe Kerry won decisively.

But the survey also contains notes of caution for the President. Kerry clearly helped himself during the debate phase of the campaign: nearly 1 in 3 voters said the debates made them likelier to vote for Kerry, compared with roughly 1 in 6 for the President. Perhaps more worrisome for Bush is that his job-approval rating has remained below 50% for a second week. Here again, the poll is split down the middle: 49% of voters approve of the President’s performance on the job, and 49% disapprove.

Republican pollsters have long warned that Bush cannot allow his approval ratings to fall below 47% and still expect to win a second term. Which means that Bush is right on the threshold of victory–and of defeat. –By Michael Duffy

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com