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. Gerry

    We'll see how the McCain camp can twist an obvious win for Obama to a drop in Obama's poll numbers. We saw it in 2004 and don't think that Tucker Bounds won't be hitting the Sunday morning shows without a spin or two up his sleeve. Bring on Sarah Palin this coming Thursday for the game-changer Obama/Biden have been looking forward to.

    September 27, 2008 03:37 am at 3:37 am |
  2. Fitzpatrick

    Way to go president Obama

    September 27, 2008 03:39 am at 3:39 am |
  3. LaVon K Hummel

    McCain did not say one thing of substance. He acted like a smug child. Obama seem more like a senior Sen. My god . Obama is just what America needs . He is one smart cookie. John McCain really in to war, and not much else. McCain seems to be living in the past. I guess growing old , dose not alway = growing wise.

    September 27, 2008 03:40 am at 3:40 am |
  4. Matthew

    Any man who votes for John MCcain is ensuring our country to 4 more years of a lackluster economy and failed views, John MCcain will say and do anything to win then go right back to what President Bush is doing Failing our Country. And by the way I am in Afghanistan right now and believe me we are not making progress here either. Obama was right Iraq is a distraction, you know what the difference between Afghanistan and Iraq is there is no Insurgency in Afghanistan. They had to travel to Iraq to kill servicemen here we are fighting the people of Afghanistan not foreign fighters like in Iraq.

    September 27, 2008 03:41 am at 3:41 am |
  5. LaVon K Hummel

    McCain is a unhealthy choice for America.

    September 27, 2008 03:43 am at 3:43 am |
  6. ellington7

    Talk about the news media trying to skew the results in Mccain's favor, when obama clearly won.

    September 27, 2008 03:49 am at 3:49 am |
  7. Thomas

    The outgoing commander of US troops in Iraq, Gen David Petraeus, has said that he will never declare victory there.
    He said he did not know that he would ever use the word "victory": "This is not the sort of struggle where you take a hill, plant the flag and go home to a victory parade... it's not war with a simple slogan."

    If this is a true statement, please tell John McCain

    September 27, 2008 03:51 am at 3:51 am |
  8. Alicia Schweiger

    As a registered independent, I would appreciate a Republican candidate who is able, during a debate, to prove that he masters the intricacies of all issues facing America. In reality, Democrats consistently prove themselves to be better at understanding and expressing themselves about complex details, while Republicans are more often happy to get off some good one-liners and "below the belt" punches – rather than really answering the questions in detail.
    As such, I honestly think that America has come to expect less of Republican candidates during debates, and as such, they will cut the Republicans more slack.
    Last night's debate was no exception to this.
    McCain stayed in his comfort zone, repeated his campaign ads, and did not answer the questions. Obama illustrated at length not only that he master the issues, but that he would be a strong leader and move America forward. I feel that Obama won this debate by a large percentage, but I also think that this will never be reflected accurately since many Americans hold lower expectations for McCain. Maybe they think that a war hero does not have to be subject to the same level of judgement as an African American from a broken immigrant family. Pity.

    September 27, 2008 03:54 am at 3:54 am |
  9. Tyree,LV-Independent

    I Agree, But Obama Looked Calm, While Mccain Look Aggitated.
    Obama Wins This One.

    September 27, 2008 03:56 am at 3:56 am |
  10. John in DC

    Obama's good at this strategy. If he's ahead and splits ties the rest of the way with you, you've lost.

    September 27, 2008 03:59 am at 3:59 am |
  11. The View from here

    I think this also shows how the election will go. Republicans are disappointed in their candidate this time and few expect to vote. Adding Sarah Palin to the ticket, while it seemed like a good idea at the time, now is a liability. The Democrats are excited about their ticket and are working hard to put him in the White House.

    September 27, 2008 03:59 am at 3:59 am |
  12. Jasmine

    If John McCain had done more than attack. He might have won this debate. It was still, Senator Obama this, and Senator Obama that.

    and this was supposed to be Senator McCains area of expertise. Ha I laugh at the very suggestion.

    September 27, 2008 04:02 am at 4:02 am |
  13. Sumi, CA

    The best part of the debate was when Obama called him Jim.

    September 27, 2008 04:07 am at 4:07 am |
  14. Angie

    CNN AND THE MEDIA ARE SO BIASED, Obama did not win by far. Look at the text pole going on after the election. An overwhelming 89% of americans felt McCain won. You IDIOTS cannot even give the man that. HATE CNN, SO DAM LIBERAL IT HURTS TO WATCH. . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . ..

    September 27, 2008 04:07 am at 4:07 am |
  15. Bill

    It appeared that McCain kept on bragging about his war heroism and experience when the deep problems of America is beyond that. Matter of fact, its true that Bin Laden is still out there having a good time and laughing at the americans, It seems they are looking for a needle in the middle of a haystack. Obama wants to get rid of Bin Laden in the worst possible way. So more troops should be there than in Iraq. So what's new with McCain?

    September 27, 2008 04:09 am at 4:09 am |
  16. Scott of Utah

    As an Obama supporter, I thought they both actually did quite well. I think Obama held his own on foreign policy, which you have to look at as a win since that is supposedly McCain's turf.

    What will be really interesting is the Biden vs Palin debate. I think Biden won't have to (and shouldn't) go too hard on her – She will self-destruct with no written speech and with no teleprompter and I think people will feel sorry for her. Biden should focus on Democratic policies and on McCain. He shouldn't say "Barack is ready to lead," because that will open it up for Palin to remind us that Biden said Barack "wasn't ready" in the primary.

    September 27, 2008 04:09 am at 4:09 am |
  17. Mary Duffy

    Did you write this before or after the debate? I watched your coverage all day and you and your so called jouranlists are so pro-Obama, that comments on how he was going to win and what it would take for him to win were flying all day. Best CNN disgrace of the day, Campbell brown, after interviewing 4 Obama supporters intoduced by name and title, introduces Sen. Lieberman as "a McCain supporter", but you all do not see her 24/7 bias. She has become so nasty, she is even less pretty.

    September 27, 2008 04:12 am at 4:12 am |
  18. steven wise

    I think this political season is the most interesting, and history makink in all my (60)yrs. and in our nations history.
    However, having said that, I think this elections VP picks are the most important we have ever had. We need to be paying a lot more attention too them than ever before simple because of the age of McCain,,and dont get me wrong, i'm not a biggot nor do I discriminate or care how old a person is. Still we have too be honest, and realise that McCain at his age makes his VP pick very important,and this really bothers me.So far everything ive seen about Palin I dont like.Not because she is a women, but she doesn't answer questions so I have know idea where she stands on anything, however my gut is telling me that she is in over her head.
    Therfore, unless something really bad happens in the Obama,Biden camp? Then I will be voting for their ticket because I think there ideas are better and because of the things I pointed out above.thank you,
    Mr. Steven Wise

    September 27, 2008 04:13 am at 4:13 am |
  19. mai

    Obama and level headed.

    September 27, 2008 04:13 am at 4:13 am |
  20. mark

    no doubts that obama comes out as a winner despite that the results might actually look like a tie. mcsame should have been looking like the experienced guy he claims to be, but intead, he spent too much time saying obama does not have experience instead of responding to obama's remarks.

    September 27, 2008 04:16 am at 4:16 am |
  21. Debbie

    McCain only showed his anger, impatience and unyielding manner. Obama was the clear winner in the debate.

    September 27, 2008 04:22 am at 4:22 am |
  22. Mark - California

    Obama might not have won by a huge percentage but he won. If foreign policy is McCain strong point it didn't show Friday night. Even with all his diversion this past week and his performance Friday night may he shouldn't have showed up.

    September 27, 2008 04:24 am at 4:24 am |
  23. Nick

    CNN your title is very misleading. you accept the data is skewed by having 41 % democrats to 27 % republicans as a sampling pool; then you have the audacity to publish this !!!
    I would have expected something like this on MSNBC or FOX.
    This is so bad because someone just scrolling through would have the false perception that "Obama won the debate according to CNN poll" . This is Wolf Blitzer's network, a great great and fair journalist, so please keep the standard up.

    September 27, 2008 04:25 am at 4:25 am |
  24. LaVon K Hummel


    September 27, 2008 04:25 am at 4:25 am |
  25. Penn State Student

    I can't say I agree. A 4.5 sampling error is way too high to come to a conclusion. Also most people are aware of CNN's strong lean to the left. This would be as useful as looking at a poll at MSNBC or even Fox news whos text voters voted over 80% in favor of McCain tonight.

    Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible to find a balanced poll conducted by any media source these days. Too much swaying. So, these polls are really useless because they help no viewer or reader no what's really going on in the minds of those still undecided.

    September 27, 2008 04:25 am at 4:25 am |
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