September 26th, 2008
11:28 PM ET
10 years ago

Poll: Both men beat expectations - but Obama had the edge

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.

Filed under: Candidate Barack Obama • Extra • John McCain
soundoff (99 Responses)
  1. chris Obama08


    September 27, 2008 02:34 am at 2:34 am |
  2. Lois

    Obama won, hands down. His termperment is what we need in the White House. Not reactionary, off the cuff overreactions.

    September 27, 2008 02:36 am at 2:36 am |
  3. Bigbubba

    Obama looked more comfortable, especially in the beginning of the debate.

    McCain seemed to act like he had tasted something bad. It may have just been the truth. After his ads, most of which run from stretching the truth to outright lies, the truth owuld be an unfamiliar flavor in his mouth.

    September 27, 2008 02:37 am at 2:37 am |
  4. corey gabriel

    McCain looked old, tired and he was cranky and condescending. NOT what a President of the United States should be! Time to retire John.

    September 27, 2008 02:39 am at 2:39 am |
  5. Ronald

    Call me next time if you want a real story by saying it's a tie due to Democraic bias your basically saying our research sucks and you don't know how to do your job! CNN has fallen so far!

    September 27, 2008 02:39 am at 2:39 am |
  6. mitchola

    i dont even know if what his real name is Barry dunham,barry Soetoro, barry obama, i dont even know if he is a US citizen so why dont he answer those questions

    September 27, 2008 02:41 am at 2:41 am |
  7. jon

    It's a mark of how distorted the Press is- everytime people actually hear McCain, not Obamas smears, not the Press's cheerleading for Obama- Every time McCain is allowed to get his message through, people come away impressed.
    And then the Press gets all confused. How about toning down your bias and sticking to the facts. McCain has a lot to offer.

    September 27, 2008 02:41 am at 2:41 am |
  8. George from Westerville

    Well ... 38% is better than George Bush's approval rating I guess.

    September 27, 2008 02:42 am at 2:42 am |
  9. Mr. Clueless

    McCain would not EVER look at or address Obama....he was like a child. The moderator kept telling him to speak TO Obama and he refused and clearly could not. He is an old cagey man who lies and looks like a beggar – NOT presidential.There is something about perception to the world that plays out on the international stage.

    I am SO tired of hearing about his military background and him telling old stories like your grandfather. Obama is not just the change we need, he is more like the Kennedy generation of rejuvenating the country, even it happens to hurt (finally) the unethical corporate old-timers, lobbyists, oil men and wealthy in their pockets.

    September 27, 2008 02:43 am at 2:43 am |
  10. Joe

    McCain was owned. I wouldn't even say it was close. In terms of who looked more presidential, Obama won hands down with his strong demeanor and ability to stay on topic. Not once would McCain even look Obama in the eye, or even address him as if he were in the same room. It was very disrespectful and quite unbecoming of a person we are supposed to believe will represent Americans on the world stage. In terms of actual debate tactics, Obama mopped the floor with his befuddled opponent. I would also point out that Obama received much more republican support throughout the debate than McCain did democratic. In the last 20 minutes it was evident through the ticker at the bottom who was winning the crowd.

    September 27, 2008 02:46 am at 2:46 am |
  11. Kate

    Any man that cannot look at and speak directly to his opponent is a coward. McCain is dishonorable. I am ashamed FOR him.

    September 27, 2008 02:48 am at 2:48 am |
  12. Adrienne

    I think obama won because Mccain seemed too moody and could not find the guts to look Obama in the eye when he said bad things about him. Obama had the guts to face Mccain when he told him all the things he got wrong in Iraq. Mccain tried to bail from the debait and then came back like a whipped dog only to be mean spirited with out having the guts to face the man he was attacking.

    September 27, 2008 02:49 am at 2:49 am |
  13. sacto joe

    I think that, in the last analysis, both candidates did a decent job tonight of defending their positions. And if I was to speak to my bias, I would say that Senator Obama won.

    However, I try to keep an objective view, and I think that Senator McCain did better than I expected, while Senator Obama did somewhat less than I expected.

    But who wins in a draw? The answer is: whoever was on top when the debate started.

    So the net gain goes to Obama, particularly since he was not playing his strong suit tonight.

    Senator McCain did little to dispel the disaster he made of the economy this week.

    September 27, 2008 02:50 am at 2:50 am |
  14. Winkzilla

    Who fared better depends on what we want in a president. If we want another arrogant partisan deregulator, then McCain was you winner. If we want another knee-jerk erratic president who also thinks he is superior by age, then McCain was your winner.

    Nevertheless, if you want a president that knows the importance of working with others to get things done, Obama showed this trait well tonight with his acknowledgment that we all have ideas to which we agree and disagree. This makes for a great statesman and a person who can actually get things done. It seems to me a bit schizophrenic to complain that our politicians do not ever get things done due to partisanship and yet complain about one candidate that displays bi-partisanship. Obama showed his strength in standing above the negative and partisan politicians that we all so desperately want to get away from. This aspect of Obama was a strong plus for me in this debate. Obama is articulate, has well thought out ideas and exactly what we need. For me, Obama was not only the winner, but also the winner hands down.

    September 27, 2008 02:50 am at 2:50 am |
  15. Fed Up

    Obama was straight forward. I feet like McCain and Palin have a strategy that is not working, I thinks its called, "Don't answer the question and use the word maverick".

    September 27, 2008 02:51 am at 2:51 am |
  16. Fed Up

    Obama was straight forward. I feel like McCain and Palin have a strategy that is not working, I thinks its called, "Don't answer the question and use the word maverick".

    September 27, 2008 02:52 am at 2:52 am |
  17. Lisa, MD


    OBAMA/BIDEN 2008

    September 27, 2008 02:53 am at 2:53 am |
  18. Independent

    McCain was pompus, arrogant, and condescending. I will not vote for him.

    September 27, 2008 02:54 am at 2:54 am |
  19. john

    SOunds good.

    McCain had so many problems. Last weeks behavior, his campaign manager, Palin, taxes, etc.

    Not sure the debate helped him enough

    September 27, 2008 02:56 am at 2:56 am |
  20. Shazri Hameed

    The comments from the viewers has to be taken from both rebulicans and democrats equally. It shoudn't be biased. It's not justified wether Obama is the winner or it's equal.So lets see in the next debate who has a clear edge given the equal opportunity.

    September 27, 2008 02:59 am at 2:59 am |
  21. Bab from Minnesota.

    I think both candidate did a marvelous job, but Obama had an edge, thorough and truthful in his responses than Mccain. This is evident by periodically saying " John is right" this is being honest to the fault. McCain on the other hand would never admit Obama was right even when this is obvious to him. I think rather than chasing after political points to boost the campaign, we need a leader who would say it as it is. " ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free".

    September 27, 2008 03:00 am at 3:00 am |
  22. jack

    i just love you all your biase slanted and liberal side of the story makes me laugh

    September 27, 2008 03:00 am at 3:00 am |
  23. LT for Obama

    I think McCain thought, if I just pretend he is not there then he will go away. The problem is that Obama kept his cool, challenged him in key issues like taxes and foreign policy and more clearly defined his stance in diplomacy. McCain was sarcastic and defensive on these issues and unfortunately for McCain, people like me are more concerned with these issues.

    September 27, 2008 03:00 am at 3:00 am |
  24. mb

    What is all this "maverick" stuff all the time. Let's face it, McCain is a republican and in the past 8 years, the republicans even with the "maverick" have run our economy into the ground, got us mired in a costly, deadly war, not found Bin Laden, not made any progress in peace talks between Israel and Palestine, etc. What good is a maverick if he's an ineffectual maverick. In the debates, McCain talked about all his experience but what does he have to show for it, what have the republicans delivered? Not much. It is definitely time for a change.

    September 27, 2008 03:01 am at 3:01 am |
  25. Tom

    No, McCain clearly won the debate. He is ready to lead this country on day one. This poll is ridiculous. Most panel members across news stations agreed that McCain was sharp and got under Obama's skin. He mentioned how Obama had $932 million in earmarks, voted with Bush's energy bill that gave Big Oil hundreds of billions in tax breaks, and how Obama voted to raise taxes on those making $42,000 or more per year. McCain made great economic points and about energy independence. He is ready. Obama is not. McCain wins debate #1.

    McCain/Palin '08. Reform. Prosperity. Peace.

    September 27, 2008 03:02 am at 3:02 am |
1 2 3 4