Wednesday, October 20, 2004

American voters, while split over who should be the next president, overwhelmingly predict that President Bush will vanquish Sen. John Kerry, an expectation that could affect the outcome of a close election.

While the various national polls show that voters prefer the president over Mr. Kerry by an average of four points, those same surveys place Mr. Bush some 20 points ahead on the question of which candidate is expected to win.

“This could be a big cause of concern for Kerry,” professor Vicki Morwitz of New York University said. “If people really think Bush is going to win, they may have a slight tendency to shift their preference and ultimately vote for Bush, even though they were a Kerry supporter to begin with.”

Mark Halperin, political director of ABC News, agreed.

“If more people (regardless of whom they support) don’t start telling pollsters that they believe Kerry will win, he probably can’t,” Mr. Halperin wrote in ABC’s the Note, an online political briefing.

Roughly one-quarter of Kerry supporters who have an opinion on the outcome of the election predict the Massachusetts Democrat will lose, according to polls by Fox News and the TechnoMetrica Institute of Policy and Politics (TIPP). By contrast, only one of 18 Bush supporters who have an opinion on the outcome expect the president to lose.

That runs contrary to the prediction of pundits who claim Mr. Kerry’s supporters are more enthusiastic and therefore more likely to turn out voters in large numbers, according to Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the Bush campaign.

“If the vast majority of your supporters believe you’re going to win, you’re going to be more motivated to turn out, and get other people to turn out,” Mr. Dowd said. “Conversely, if a third of Kerry supporters don’t think their candidate’s going to win, that means they would be much less likely to turn out or help in the final days.

“It’s not necessarily completely vote-determinative,” he added. “But it does reflect the president’s momentum in the race and the enthusiasm and strength of his supporters.”

Dick Morris, who came to prominence as the pollster for President Clinton, said that while the expectations differential might help Mr. Bush in a typical election, this year’s contest is so polarizing that even pessimistic Kerry supporters will show up at the polls.

“In this election, where everybody believes it will be razor close — partly because of what happened in 2000 — I don’t think expectations will be a factor,” he said. “I think there’s going to be a huge turnout.”

But Mrs. Morwitz, a marketing professor whose research likens winning politicians to winning products, said the constant drumbeat of polls showing Mr. Bush ahead could have an impact.

“If you like Kerry and then find out the electorate doesn’t like him — they seem to like Bush better — that makes you feel psychologically uncomfortable,” she explained. “And people don’t like to be in a dissonant state, whether it’s about politics, whether it’s about products, whether it’s about anything.

“So they try to find a way to get out of that state,” she added. “Therefore, there might be at least a small number of Kerry supporters shifting their attitudes to be a little more pro-Bush so that their expectations and preferences line up.”

New polls by Gallup, Fox and ABC News have Mr. Bush ahead by eight, seven and five points, respectively. However, those same polls show the president leading by margins of 20, 17 and 23 on the question of who respondents expect to win the election.

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