How Important Will the Debates Be This Year?

Posted September 28, 2004 at 2:45pm

The first presidential debate between President Bush and John Kerry will be held Thursday night. But how influential will it be for voters? [IMGCAP(1)]

In a Sept. 20-22 CBS News poll, 27 percent said the presidential debates would have a great deal of influence on their vote. But 70 percent said they would mostly vote on other things, not how the candidates performed in the debates. Those numbers were similar to results from a mid-September poll.

In the Sept. 21-23 SRBI/Time poll, 35 percent of the registered voter sample said they planned to watch all the debates, while 49 percent said they’d watch just some and 14 percent said they’d view none of them. As to the debates’ importance, 24 percent said the debates would be very important for determining how they would vote, while 33 percent said they’d be somewhat important.

The excitement factor is down a bit from 1960, the year of the first televised presidential debate. In a Gallup poll conducted in August 1960, 56 percent of respondents said they were interested in watching the debate between then-Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Vice President Richard Nixon, while 39 percent said they were not.

A Clear Plan for Iraq? John Kerry has made a new push on Iraq, but current polls suggest that he has a way to go in capturing support on the issue.

The Sept. 17-19 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 49 percent of a registered voter sample thought Bush would be better on the issue of the war in Iraq, while 35 percent said Kerry would.

In the Sept. 20-22 CBS News poll, only 10 percent believed Kerry had a clear plan for rebuilding Iraq, compared to 73 percent who said he did not. The president scored better, but lacked resounding levels of support. CBS found 33 percent who said the Bush administration had a clear plan for rebuilding Iraq, but 53 percent who said it had not developed one.

Similarly, while 43 percent of respondents in a likely voter sample said that Bush had a clear plan for handling Iraq, 50 percent said he did not, according to a Sept. 21-22 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll. As for Kerry, 34 percent said he had a clear plan; 53 percent said he did not.

In a Sept. 20-22 Associated Press/Ipsos poll, 51 percent of the likely voter sample approved of the way Bush is handling Iraq, and 48 percent disapproved.

In any case, Kerry just isn’t getting traction on Iraq. The Sept. 24-26 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll finds that 41 percent say Kerry would handle the situation in Iraq better than Bush, while 55 percent say Bush would handle it better.

Vietnam Overload. In Marist’s Sept. 20-22 poll , 80 percent said the presidential campaign had focused too much on the candidates’ military service during Vietnam. Seven percent said it focused too little on that topic.

The Next Supreme Court Nominee. In the Sept. 20-22 Associated Press/Ipsos poll, 20 percent of the registered voter sample said they would like the next court nominee to have political views that were very conservative, 36 percent somewhat conservative, 28 percent somewhat liberal, and 9 percent very liberal.

Taxes. In a poll of registered voters in the Sept. 12-16 CBS poll, 55 percent said their taxes would stay about the same if Bush won re-election, compared to 36 percent who said they would go up and 5 percent who said they would go down. If Kerry is elected, 38 percent of respondents said their taxes would stay the same, 51 percent said they would go up, and 6 percent expected them to go down.

Post-election Plans. In the Sept. 17-19 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 58 percent of the registered voter sample said that if Bush is re-elected, he should make major changes in his second term. Another 31 percent said he should make minor adjustments, and 9 percent said they would like the second term to be a lot like the first one.

Post-Election Misery. In a Sept. 20-22 Marist poll, 21 percent said they would feel miserable if Bush is elected, and another 21 percent said they would be unhappy. When asked the same question about Kerry, 17 percent said they would be miserable if Kerry won, with 22 percent saying they’d be unhappy.

And the Winner Is … The mid-September CBS News poll found that 61 percent thought Bush would win the election, while 27 percent thought Kerry would win. In the Pew poll taken at roughly the same time, those responses were 60 percent and 22 percent, respectively.

Third-Party Candidates. In Gallup’s Sept. 13-15 poll, 7 percent had a favorable opinion of Michael Badnarik, the Libertarian Party candidate for president, while 16 percent an unfavorable one. A full 65 percent had never heard of him.

For David Cobb, the Green Party candidate, 6 percent had a favorable view and 21 percent an unfavorable view, with 58 percent having never heard of him. Just 5 percent had a favorable view of Michael Peroutka, the Constitution Party candidate, while 13 percent had an unfavorable view. Sixty-nine percent had never heard of him.

Karlyn Bowman is a resident fellow specializing in public opinion and polls at the American Enterprise Institute.