WASHINGTON — Less than six weeks before Election Day, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows President Bush with a lead over Democratic challenger John Kerry — but it's within the margin of error, and it's much smaller than some other recent post-GOP convention polls indicate.
Still, the survey has some troubling numbers for Kerry as he tries to close Bush's narrow lead: Female voters aren't flocking to the Massachusetts senator as they have to past Democratic candidates, and a solid majority of overall voters believes he doesn't have a message, or doesn't know what he would do if elected.
The poll, conducted by Hart/McInturff, shows Bush receiving support from 48 percent of registered voters, Kerry getting 45 percent, and Nader getting 2 percent. Among likely voters (defined as those expressing high interest in the November election, who represent 78 percent of the survey), Bush holds a four-point lead over Kerry, 50 percent to 46 percent.
"The difference between those couple of points and being in a dead-even race is modest," said GOP pollster Bill McInturff. "This is not a difficult race [for Kerry] to get quickly back to being functionally tied."
In fact, the results among registered voters are virtually identical to the results from past NBC/Wall Street Journal polls — even though many experts claim that Bush had a resoundingly successful convention, and noted that Kerry (dogged by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who attacked his Vietnam record, and Democrats who questioned whether his campaign had a concrete message) had a dreadful August.
In the last poll, which was released just days before the Republican convention, Bush held a 47-45 percent lead over Kerry, a result unchanged from the survey in July. Moreover, June's poll had Bush leading 45 percent to 44 percent; May's had him up 46-42; and March's had him leading 46-43.
At odds with other polls
In addition, the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll — conducted Sept. 17-Sept. 19 among 1,006 registered voters, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points — finds that Bush's lead among registered voters may not be as large as some other recent polls have suggested. For instance, the CBS News/New York Times survey had Bush's lead at 9 points; Gallup had it at 8 points; and ABC News/Washington Post had it at 6 points. (Other national polls, however, have shown a much closer race.)
Nevertheless, examining the national polls might not be the best way to gauge the current state of this race; what really matters is the electoral map. And according to an NBC analysis of that map, Bush has 222 electoral votes leaning his way, Kerry has 200, and 116 appear up for grabs.
Although Kerry narrowly trails Bush in this poll, the survey also has some discouraging findings for the Democratic candidate. For example, he has just a 48-45 percent lead among women voters. By comparison, exit polls from 2000 show that that Al Gore won the women's vote 54-43. And the reason behind this shift, it seems, can be attributed to the war on terror. In the poll, when asked what set of issues is more important, 44 percent of respondents said terrorism, social issues and values, while another 44 percent said the economy and health care. Among women, though, 45 percent cited the economy and health care, while a surprisingly large 42 percent said terrorism and values.
Another troubling sign for the Kerry campaign is that most voters don't know what its message is. Fifty-four percent of respondents say that the campaign doesn't have a message, or that they don't know what a Kerry-Edwards team would do if elected. That's compared with just 36 percent who believe the campaign has a message. On the other hand, 68 percent say the Bush campaign has a message, while just 23 percent think it doesn't.
Troubling signs for Bush, too
But Bush has some troubling signs of his own. Even though the president has a slight lead in this poll, when voters were asked what they would want in a second term for Bush, 58 percent say they want major changes, compared with only 9 percent who say they want his second term to look a lot like his first term. "Look, he has to prove that he will pivot" in a second term, said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart. Yet McInturff, the GOP pollster, added that this is something Bush can accomplish at the upcoming debates.
And heading into those debates, this poll — with a near-even horse race and problematic signs for both Bush and Kerry — shows that the presidential contest could be as close as the one four years ago. "For now, the race has all the hallmarks of a photo finish," Hart said.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.