September 27th, 2008
09:11 AM ET
6 years ago

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

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(AP Photo)

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.

soundoff (162 Responses)
  1. Ryan Kr Jr

    Last night debate was a clear victory for Obama. Americans saw a smart young man who knows the subject and ideas how things work and how things should be; On the other hand, McCain looks confused, angry and stucked in the ideas of the past.

    John King of CNN doubted his own CNN poll last night about Obama's victory -this is how bias John King has been since this election period.

    September 27, 2008 09:47 am at 9:47 am |
  2. alvino

    While the $3 million earmark spent on grizzly bear DNA came up again, I wish Obama would have pointed out that McCain voted for it. I find it hard to believe that McCain would stare down a Putin like leader, when he could not even look at Obama. I am still for Obama.

    September 27, 2008 09:47 am at 9:47 am |
  3. Matt

    Hell no. In CNN's defense, they not only put the fact that more Dems responded to the poll in regular lettering, not "fine print," they have failed to mention even once that the 6-person BIPARTISAN (and yes, some of them are clearly partisan) panel of score-keepers can out with a net score of Obama 44, McCain 22. This entire weekend of news about the debate is a complete and utter equivocation job, not OBJECTIVE journalism.

    September 27, 2008 09:47 am at 9:47 am |
  4. Kimberly

    McCain was, as usual, his same smug self. He looks as if he has been embalmed and garners the same goofy grins and smirks as George Bush.
    Hmmm...birds of a feather.
    Also, being a POW does not qualify you for the position of President of THESE United States.
    He should keep his war record at home for a change and stick to the issues at hand.

    September 27, 2008 09:47 am at 9:47 am |
  5. PAT California

    Too much has been made of Obama's withdrawal PLAN! He has said many times that he will sit down with the best there is to hammer out a plan that will be in the best interest of all! His AIM is a quick withdrawal, but his actual plan is yet to come. He is no dictator or know-it -all like the other candidate. As Biden, who has been everywhere McCain has been has said, just because you've been there, doesn't make you right! McCain spent most of his time visiting the troops, because they think he's so great. a real ego boost! There's not a lot you can learn about the war from the men who are fighting, other than their own personal feelings, which can be varied. That doesn't mean his visits there make him more in on the actual events. Both candidates have met with the head honcho over there and have taken away their own interpretatation of how the war is going. But to hear McCain talk he's the only person in the world who is capable of handling it!!!! NOT! He is a service man first, one of the guys, NOT A LEADER!!!!
    Many have noticed that McCain NEVER looked at Obama during the debate, even when they shook hands. Interesting behavoir! The reason behind avoiding eye contact is, "lack of confidence and low self esteem". Can you picture that man talking with a leader of another country??? But of course there would be preconditions before any talks take place, kind of like a matador who waits before he goes in for the kill! Let others do all the work and then you can take all the credit, sort of like the talks on the economy now. Others have spent day and night hammering out a bill that was said to be acceptable to both sides. Swooping in comes McCain and the Republicans pull out. OK They had to have the debate but McCain will be back to take credit for whatever solution others have found.

    September 27, 2008 09:48 am at 9:48 am |
  6. NH Mom

    All I could think was that Clinton would have easily beat both men in this debate. If only the Democratic superdelegates had selected her.....like the primary voters did

    I'm still split on voting for Clinton as a write-in and voting for Obama (and only because I live in a swing state would I vote for someone other than Clinton).

    September 27, 2008 09:48 am at 9:48 am |
  7. Maryland

    Senator McCain looked completely out of his comfort zone. He was programmed to be on the attack instead of having a discussion. He would not even look at Senator Obama .

    September 27, 2008 09:48 am at 9:48 am |
  8. robert ga

    Obama did well holding his own against Mccain. He was supposed to be this inexperienced , wet behind the ears newbee from chicago. But he actually looked presidential and had command of his delivery. Most importantly held his cool amidst continuous barrage of repeated "you just don't get, you just don't get.

    Mccain was good as we all expected on foreign policy, but Obama looked fresher on the issues and mccain was a bit too old school. He lost me in the whole history lesson of alexander the great and kissinger references

    September 27, 2008 09:48 am at 9:48 am |
  9. Not Buying It

    Not that you'll post my comment, since you never do CNN but why even have a biased poll towards the Democrats? Talk about " in the tank" politics... People are not that stupid.

    September 27, 2008 09:48 am at 9:48 am |
  10. chadp71

    Now we know what Obama will do. Spend money like its water and thats not what we need right now. Thats just crazy even when Obama was asked what would you cut he added more programs he will have us go bankrupt in no time. Plus he has no clue how to keep us safe from attack.

    September 27, 2008 09:49 am at 9:49 am |
  11. GUY

    I'm independent and haven't made a choice on who to vote for – and I honestly would prefer to have some better options! So, my unbiased, neutral reaction to the event is that McCain was the better debater last night. Whether he was 100% truthful is to be determined but, Obama did not come across as knowledgeable and spent a lot of time saying the same things he's said before. McCain repeated some of his campaign quotes too but he also added a lot of historical information to support his ideas.

    And the person above who said that McCain was disrespectful watched a different debate because Obama was the one who kept calling McCain John while McCain called his opponent Senator Obama.

    But, people see and hear what they want to see and hear....

    September 27, 2008 09:49 am at 9:49 am |
  12. ALLAN USA

    OBAMA LOOKS LIKE STUDENT ,McCAIN LOOKS LIKE PROFESSOR.

    September 27, 2008 09:49 am at 9:49 am |
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