OXFORD, Mississippi (CNN) – A national poll of people who watched the first presidential debate suggests that Barack Obama came out on top.
Fifty-one percent of those polled in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey of Americans who viewed the debate say that Obama won. Thirty-eight percent of those polled say that John McCain did the best job.
“According to our CNN survey, McCain and Obama both exceeded debate viewers’ expectations tonight,” noted CNN Senior Political Researcher Alan Silverleib. “It can be reasonably concluded, especially after accounting for the slight Democratic bias in the survey, that we witnessed a tie in Mississippi tonight. But given the direction of the campaign over the last couple of weeks, a tie translates to a win for Obama. McCain is trailing right now; he needed a game changer. There are no indications he got that tonight.”
Men were nearly evenly split between the two candidates, with 46 percent giving the win to McCain, and 43 percent to Obama. But women voters tended to give Obama higher marks: 59 percent thought he was the night’s winner, while just 31 percent said the same of McCain.
Both men did better than expected, according to those surveyed: 57 percent say Obama exceeded their expectations, and 60 percent said the same of McCain. One in five voters thought each man under-performed.
National security has been an issue where McCain has held an advantage, but his 4 point edge over Obama - 49 to 45 percent - on the question of which candidate would best handle terrorism is within the poll’s 4.5 percent margin of error.
The economy, which has been Obama’s terrain this cycle, dominated the first half of the debate – and debate watchers gave him a 21 point edge, 58 to 37 percent, on the question of which candidate would do a better job handling the economy. By a similar margin, those polled said he would be better able to deal with the current financial crisis facing the nation.
But the real impact of the debate may not be apparent right away. "The real test will come in a few days when we see whether support for Obama or McCain changes in polls involving all voters, not just debate watchers," said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "In post-debate polls after the first face-off in 2004, John Kerry got virtually the same numbers as Obama did tonight. Polls released a few days later showed Kerry gaining five points in the horse race."
Good numbers in a post-debate poll don't always spell success in the horse race. "Kerry also won the third debate in 2004 with the same numbers that Obama got in tonight's poll, but his support dropped five points after that event," Holland noted.
The poll consisted of interviews with 524 adult Americans who watched the debate conducted by telephone on September 26. All interviews were conducted after the end of the debate. The margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
The audience for this debate appears to be more Democratic than the U.S. population as a whole. Because of this, the results favor Obama simply because more Democrats than Republicans tuned into the debate. The sample of debate-watchers in this poll were 41 percent Democratic and 27 percent Republican. The best estimate of the number of Democrats in the voting age population as a whole indicates that the sample is roughly 5-7 points more Democratic than the population as a whole.