SEOUL - The last survey released ahead of next week's presidential election showed the race too close to call as Moon Jae-in gained on frontrunner Park Geun-hye.
According to a poll conducted Wednesday by Real Meter and commissioned by Herald Corp., Park of the Saenuri Party was seen losing her edge against her Democratic United Party challenger, with 47.8 per cent against 47.7 per cent, respectively.
The surge in support for Moon was most apparent among respondents in their 30s and 40s who have been considered the key swing voters for the Dec. 19 election.
But Park maintained her lead in the "better chance at winning" category, with 54.2 per cent saying the conservative flag-bearer is most likely to win, compared to 43.3 per cent for Moon.
The survey was conducted on 1,000 respondents through random digit dialing and has a 95 per cent confidence interval of ±3.1 percentage points.
Polls conducted by other media and pollsters also showed a tighter race between the two with gaps of 0.5-3.5 percentage points, all within the margin of error.
The distance between the two frontrunners has been consistently narrowing since the withdrawal of former professor Ahn Cheol-soo from the race last month. The differences had stood at 4.8 percentage points in the same survey conducted on Dec. 4.
As the candidates are seeing near-identical support ratings, their campaigns are becoming nastier each day with negative attacks and accusations.
North Korea's long-range missile launch that shook up the peninsula and the rest of the world on Wednesday was also seen to affect the tone of the race, although the impact was not immediately perceived through the survey.
The release of new polls is banned as of Thursday in accordance with election laws.
Park and Moon emphasised for the second day Thursday their capacity to lead the nation through crisis and tension with North Korea, blaming each other for failing to contain Pyongyang's provocation.
Among the respondents in their 40s, who have become the key swing voters with their conservative lifestyles and progressive mindsets, Moon garnered wider popularity with 56.2 per cent, beating Park by a whopping 17.9 percentage points. Support for Moon among those in their twenties and thirties also continued to surge by around 10 percentage points, indicating a reinforced support base for the liberal candidate.
Park, on the other hand, enjoyed sturdy support among those in their 50s with 61.6 per cent and those aged 60 and over with 73.4 per cent.
With the race becoming a showdown between the young (20s and 30s) against the older generation (50s and 60s), political pundits said the key will be the final voter turnout among different age groups.
According to the National Election Commission's Dec. 11 survey on eligible voters' willingness to head to the polls, those who responded they would definitely vote came to 74.5 per cent among those in their 20s, 71.8 per cent among those in their 30s, 78.3 per cent among those in their 40s, 82.8 per cent among those in their 50s and 91.5 per cent among those 60 and over.
While those in their 50s and 60s have consistently showed higher voter turnout, the willingness to vote among the younger generation was seen to have escalated from five years ago by 22.9 percentage points and 14.9 percentage points among the 20-somethings and the 30-somethings, respectively.
By region, Moon surpassed the crucial 40 per cent mark with 41.4 per cent of support in the Busan and South Gyeongsang Province constituencies which are considered to hold casting votes, although Park held onto her lead with 55.1 per cent.
But the former presidential chief of staff suffered a setback in the metropolitan region with Park surpassing him 47.7 per cent to 46.1 per cent.
Of the supporters for Ahn, 67.4 per cent said they now stood behind Moon, compared to 55.1 per cent in the Dec. 4 poll.
To a question on what the respondents based their choices on, 49.6 per cent cited pledges and polices of each candidate. Some 31.9 per cent also chose ideological preferences.
More respondents seemed to have made up their mind with 8.3 per cent (as opposed to 13.0 per cent in the previous survey) saying they may change their support. The percentage of floating voters also downsized by half to 3.1 per cent from 6.2 per cent.
The opposing campaigns each highlighted the last batch of polls showed they were at an advantage.
"As the gap among the candidates didn't reduce drastically as the DUP had hoped, or continued to widen as we had hoped, it is deemed that just as how the opposition forces solidified upon the participation of Ahn, our supporters are also unifying," said Park's election committee spokesman Cho Hae-jin.
Moon's election strategy chief Rep. Lee Mok-hee said, "Although Park has finished collecting all the votes that she could, Moon still has more to go. We are at an advantage when considering the hidden opposition votes that are not captured through the ordinary surveys."
As Park rallied through Gyeonggi, Gangwon and North Chuncheong provinces, her campaign team went all-out to counter the DUP's attacks including its allegation that a National Intelligence Service employee was attempting to manipulate public sentiment against Moon on the Internet. Park's side countered by releasing their own allegation against Moon, accusing his son of benefiting from unfair favors in getting a job in 2006.
The DUP, for their part, entered into emergency mode as of Thursday with a 24-hour operation of the election committee, as Moon travelled Chungcheong and Jeolla provinces. He has also continued to reach out to the wider public by pledging to move the presidential office to downtown Gwanghwamun on Wednesday, an idea once touted by his half-hearted ally Ahn.
The main opposition party also additionally argued that they have secured more evidence that other NIS employees were involved in systematically denouncing Moon online.