WASHINGTON — Texas Gov. George W. Bush widened his lead in a new presidential poll over the weekend, despite reports revealing that 24 years ago he pleaded guilty to a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol.
The latest Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll finds Governor Bush moving ahead of Vice President Al Gore by a 48 percent to 39 percent margin.
It is the first time Mr. Gore has dipped below 40 percent in the tracking poll.
Following reports of Bush's 1976 arrest, the Monitor/TIPP poll asked several hundred likely voters whether the news had damaged their opinion of the Texas governor.
The poll found that 95 percent of likely voters had heard about the conviction. Most had also heard Bush's response that he had "made mistakes" in his life, and had "learned from those mistakes."
Ironically, the survey found that the DUI news - together with Bush's defense - actually improved some voters' views of the governor. Many saw his response as straightforward and contrite.
Overall, 71 percent said the DUI conviction had "no effect" on their opinion of Bush. Of the rest, 15 percent said it improved their opinion of Bush, while 13 percent said they viewed him less favorably.
The whole DUI blowup appears a wash for Bush, says Raghavan Mayur, president of TIPP, a unit of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, who conducted the poll.
Among the all-important undecided voters, in fact, the DUI news may have been a plus for Bush. Nearly 19 percent of this group said it improved their opinion of Bush, while 6 percent said their opinion was less favorable.
"Once a man has been forgiven, and he's not doing that kind of behavior any more, then he should be given every chance in the world to be absolved from that," says Maria Osborne, a registered Democrat from Granite Falls, N.C., and a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Bush's "morals are equal to or better than Gore's," she says, adding that she will vote for Bush.
But Kay Gallagher, an independent voter and real estate agent in Reston, Va., says her opinion of Bush is "much less favorable." She says that while most people will excuse Bush's arrest as something in the past, she feels he should have told the whole truth earlier. And since Bush kept drinking for years, she wonders whether he drove under the influence at other times, but didn't get caught. She plans to vote for Gore.
Still, Bush has held his lead. The latest Monitor/TIPP survey provides further evidence that the contest has fallen into a pattern. During the past eight days of polling, Bush's support has ranged narrowly from 47 percent to 49 percent. In that same time frame, Gore's support ranged from 40 percent to 43 percent, until this latest survey, when he got 39 percent.
Meanwhile, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader has hovered near 3 percent, while other minor-party candidates, such as the Reform Party's Pat Buchanan, have polled at 1 percent or less.
Bush's strength comes from eight voter groups: men, whites, married people, Southerners, non-union households, conservatives, families that earn over $50,000 - and, of course, Republicans.
The core of Gore's support can be found among seven groups: families earning under $20,000, single people, women, liberals, union households, Northeasterners - and, of course, Democrats.
The political trench warfare between Bush, Gore, and sometimes Mr. Nader, in battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, has been fought primarily over independents.
Since Labor Day, Bush has steadily pulled more and more of these crucial voters to his side. The latest survey gives him a 48 percent to 30 percent edge with independents, a group among whom Gore led after the Democratic National Convention in August.
Most analysts still consider the election extremely close, particularly the race for Electoral College votes.
Because of the unpredictable effect of the Nader campaign, which is concentrated in progressive states like Washington, Oregon, and Minnesota, as well as union states like Michigan, the Electoral College outcome is less certain than usual.
Yet analysts also say that if Bush can win the popular vote by 3 percent or more, most of the Electoral College uncertainty will fade away. A 3 percent margin, they say, practically guarantees a majority in the Electoral College.
Another thing that pollsters and pundits cannot predict with certainty is voter turnout. If any one large group - blacks, Hispanics, married people, whites - turn out in unusually large numbers, it could undermine the most carefully crafted campaign plans by either side.
If Gore is to pull off a win, he must get overwhelming support - around 90 percent - among the black community. And blacks must turn out in record numbers. Unions must produce one of their best-ever get-out-the-vote efforts. And the turnout of women, particularly unmarried women, must be unusually high.
Otherwise, a new party could be in the White House in January.
Staff writer Stephanie Cook contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society