Issues, or Personal Traits?

The voters agree, according to the polls: John Kerry won all three debates. Did those wins do the Democratic nominee any good? Well, yes. The debates got Kerry back into the game. In September, President Bush was building up a lead. Now the race is neck and neck.

The debates cemented Kerry's advantage. That advantage can be summarized in one word—issues. Growing numbers of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country. They think the economy is getting worse—50 percent said so in the latest Gallup Poll, up from 45 percent in September. They think it's a bad time to find a quality job—so said 67 percent of respondents in October, up from 61 percent in September. They are very concerned about gasoline prices (59 percent), and they think those prices will continue to rise in the next three months (67 percent).

In The New York Times/CBS News poll, the number who say they think the United States is on the wrong track jumped from 50 percent to 57 percent in October. And 55 percent say things are going badly for the United States in Iraq.

Voters who say their choice is driven by the issues favor Kerry over Bush by 58 percent to 37 percent, according to Gallup. So where is Bush getting his support? From voters who say their choice is driven by the candidates' personal qualities, such as leadership and vision. Those folks favor Bush over Kerry by 57 percent to 38 percent.

Bush is running on one personal quality above all: strength. "If America shows uncertainty or weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy," Bush said in Florida. "This will not happen on my watch."

Bush uses "liberal" as a code word for "weak." Liberals used to be called soft on communism and soft on crime. Now they're called soft on terrorism. A recent Bush ad echoes the famous "bear in the woods" ad run by the Reagan re-election campaign in 1984. The bear symbolized the Soviet Union. This time, the menace is evoked by a pack of wolves who symbolize terrorists. "Weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm," the Bush ad warns.

Kerry, for his part, has gone to great lengths to proclaim his toughness. He told an audience in Tampa, "I will fight a tougher war on terror. We will hunt down, capture, and kill the terrorists no matter where they are." But for months, the Bush campaign has kept up a relentless assault on Kerry as weak and vacillating. On March 4, two days after Super Tuesday, when Kerry effectively secured the Democratic nomination, Bush told Republican supporters, "Senator Kerry has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue."

Throughout the campaign, people have given the edge to Bush as a "strong and decisive leader." Asked by Gallup in the mid-October poll whether that characterization better describes Kerry or Bush, voters chose Bush by a 20-point margin.

Four years ago, in the race between Bush and Al Gore, voters said that issues outweighed personal qualities (44 to 36 percent, according to Gallup). This year, voters give personal qualities a narrow edge, 46 to 39 percent. It's a close race, not just between Kerry and Bush, but also whether issues or personal qualities are more important. How voters come down on that question on Election Day will determine which candidate prevails.

Where will this race be decided? On October 22, Bush spent the morning in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; the afternoon in Canton, Ohio; and the evening in St. Petersburg, Fla. Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida are the biggest battleground states, each with 20 or more electoral votes. Whoever wins at least two of those three states will win the election. In 2000, Bush carried Ohio and, after a disputed recount, Florida. Of the three, Gore took only Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania has a lot of socially conservative voters who oppose abortion rights and favor gun rights. The state has been described as "Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle." Bush is counting on those voters in Pennsylvania's middle region. "Good to be in a part of the world where people like to hunt and fish," he told voters in Wilkes-Barre.

Pennsylvania also has a large population of seniors. Kerry is counting on them. He went to Wilkes-Barre and said, "My fellow Americans, on November 2, Social Security is on the ballot." Seven nonpartisan polls taken in Pennsylvania in October all show Kerry in the lead—by single-digit margins. The average: Kerry 49 percent, Bush 45 percent.

Florida has a popular Republican governor named Bush and a good economy. This year's devastating hurricanes enabled President Bush to campaign there without seeming to campaign. But Florida remains a wild card because of the state's rapidly expanding minority population, including Puerto Ricans and other non-Cuban Hispanics. In seven Florida polls this month, Bush was ahead in four, Kerry in two, and one was a tie. The average was Bush 47 percent, Kerry 46.

That leaves Ohio, where the economy over the last four years has not been good. As Kerry recently reminded voters, "In Ohio alone, we've lost 237,000 jobs—173,000 of them in manufacturing." Seven polls taken in Ohio this month all show a close race. The average shows the candidates tied at 47 percent.

If you want to spend the last week of this campaign at political ground zero, buy yourself a ticket to Ohio. This election may all come down to the Buckeye State.