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

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


(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. Dee

    As Tom Shales said last night, we saw the next president of the United States: Barack Obama

    September 27, 2008 09:14 am at 9:14 am |
  2. Woman voter from VA

    A superficial comment, Obama wore a lapel flag pin, McCain did not. Wasn't Obama criticized for not wearing a lapel flag pin? I wonder if McCain will be....

    September 27, 2008 09:14 am at 9:14 am |
  3. RRM

    I guess this poll was made at a democrat meeting or maybe we are talking about two different debates. That is like someone saying that the Mest won against the Marlins last night.

    September 27, 2008 09:15 am at 9:15 am |
  4. Woman voter from VA

    Obama wore a lapel flag pin, McCain did not. Wasn't Obama criticized for not wearing a lapel flag pin? I wonder if McCain will be....

    September 27, 2008 09:15 am at 9:15 am |
  5. Jill Brown

    Out of 300 million people this is the best we've got? We need a leadership bailout!!! Tweedle dee and tweedle dumb.

    September 27, 2008 09:15 am at 9:15 am |
  6. conny

    wouldn't have missed it, but i think that it was a kodak moment that was suppose to be politic free. The American people do not need to be continually baffled with old time bs. Sen McCain mixed alot of lies with a little bit of truth

    September 27, 2008 09:15 am at 9:15 am |
  7. Ann Romero

    CNN is always on Obama side. Experience is a better judgement and John McCain wins that vote of confidence. Obama speaks words only, he is script and has a great memory. John McCain speaks words with action and will get the job done at the end of the day.

    September 27, 2008 09:16 am at 9:16 am |
  8. Avid Political junkie

    McCain was so rude, condescending, and what was with the snickering and laughing, smirking all the way through.
    Obama deserves some respect and McCain treated Obama like a little kid. He turned away from Obama and never once looked him in the eye. Rude, Rude, Rude.
    Plus IT WAS ALL ABOUT HIM! McCain , As usual ,his old man on the park bench rehashing all his past. Barack spoke to the people that are hurting. McCain gets an F for his delivery . Just imagine that angry old man at a meeting with Putin.. you don't act like that. No respect, no manners no presidency either.

    September 27, 2008 09:17 am at 9:17 am |
  9. Charlotte

    Guess that depends on who you ask. All I heard was Obamas stump speech, the same one over and over. He did say McCain was right when McCain answered first.

    September 27, 2008 09:17 am at 9:17 am |
  10. alpha

    i think obama was best in this debate i m for obama

    September 27, 2008 09:17 am at 9:17 am |
  11. typical mccain lies!!!

    I thought mccain's point was obama wasnt experienced enough? Seems like public opinion says he did better so i'd say thats def.a win for the obama team. The news media has shown they are scared of the mccain campaign so i expect them to headline some fictional draw. Mccain didnt do anything he wasnt expected to do. He showed he was angry most of the debate and as normal obama was clear and firm on his positions. mccain came across as a angry ole man who didnt want the new generation coming in with their big ideas. Cant wait to see the debate thursday. Thats going to be a thrill!

    September 27, 2008 09:17 am at 9:17 am |
  12. Red, North Carolina

    McCain just seemed to keep **name dropping** (though it was refreshing after Bush, to hear him actually pronounce their names correctly!). I did NOT hear anything NEW! No DIRECTION going forward! That's great that you know all of these world leaders...but what are you planning to DO with those relationships??

    He also seemed / sounded really OLD to me (I'm in my early 40's) HOW COULD HE LEAVE US WITH PALIN IF HE DIES????? Because SHE DOES NOT have your connections or experience!!!!!!

    He has an OLD WORLD VIEW and I can't bear another 4 years of Bush's policies. What are you going to do to move us FORWARD Mr. McCain???

    September 27, 2008 09:17 am at 9:17 am |
  13. BHO FTL

    John/Mccain is right... that was the most self defeating line of all...

    September 27, 2008 09:17 am at 9:17 am |
  14. Rob Roberts in OH

    The pundits are being way too kind to McCain. John McCain told old man stories and looked old and angry, never looking his peer in the eye.

    Obama looked presidential and gave way more details and facts. Look at the polls of independants. Obama did what he needed to do to win this election.

    September 27, 2008 09:17 am at 9:17 am |
  15. Pat Omaha, NE

    I got really tired of McCain's continued reference to the places he's been and the people he knows. I don't care haw many places he's visited using my tax dollars! That doesn't make him experienced or able to lead the country! That just makes him older and with more mileage!! It might even mean that he has preconceived ideas and cannot bring CHANGE to the job!!
    Go Obama/Biden

    I can't wait until Thursday!

    September 27, 2008 09:17 am at 9:17 am |

    its funny how in fine prints CNN says, that poll included more democrats in the survey to measure who won the debate. And headline says "Obama on top" !! WOW CNN, you have managed to loose the last string of dignity left on your naked journalism!

    SHAME ON YOU BARAK OBAMA – Hilary Clinton

    September 27, 2008 09:17 am at 9:17 am |
  17. chris24

    McCain looked better than I thought he would, though cold and distant. But for all the bluster about Obama's naivete, how could McCain pick a completely inexperienced VP candidate as Sarah Palin?

    This will come down to her, and she isn't even ready for the job she has.

    September 27, 2008 09:18 am at 9:18 am |
  18. Greg

    Hook, Line, and Sink.

    Obama/Biden '08

    September 27, 2008 09:18 am at 9:18 am |
  19. brad

    I found it odd how McCain never looked directly at Obama. A real leader, especially if you disagree would sternly look into the eye of an opposing person. It reinforces strength, character and that you mean business. You aren't shying away from your point of voice. Obama did that extremely well. If you don't it means you are closing yourself in and not listening. That is scary.

    September 27, 2008 09:19 am at 9:19 am |
  20. audacity17

    Did anyone else notice that McCain wouldn't look Obama in the eye. From time to time throughout the debate Obama squared his shoulders McCain's way, but he spoke only to McCain's profile. What does it suggest to you when a person cannot bring him/herself to make eye contact? Lehrer tried again and again to have the candidates "talk to each other" before giving up.

    September 27, 2008 09:19 am at 9:19 am |
  21. marisa

    The debate did not really give anyhting new, but in the area of international affairs, where McCain was thought to have had the upper hand, Obama showed intelligent and thoughtful understanding of the world. A refreshing departure from the old stale politics that no longer work in a changed interdependent and interconnected world. McCain hammering "Obama does not get it" was petty and empty considering he was addressing a man with a Harvard Law degree. NO ONE can believe that.

    September 27, 2008 09:19 am at 9:19 am |
  22. Luis

    Obama had the edge, LOL

    Typical CNN propaganda. Obama get his butt kicked and was exposed for the smooth talking snake oil salesman that he is.

    Obama had the edge, LOL so funny

    September 27, 2008 09:19 am at 9:19 am |
  23. Dovey

    Barak Hussein Obama supposedly won by pollsters? Uh, no one polled me or anyone I know what they thought!!! I did not watch the debate however I did turn it on very very briefly and I heard Obama call John McCain "Jim"! He's no winner!! Yeah, that sounds really good President Barak Hussein Obama!!

    September 27, 2008 09:19 am at 9:19 am |
  24. Doris

    Obama appeared much better in the debates. The weeks events seemed to have taken a toll on McCain. Unfortunately, Mr. McCain, looked really old, tired, disoriented and only had a lucid moment when he talked about war.

    More so then ever, do I really believe McCain is far too old for the job and demands of the office of the presidency. The debates proved that.

    September 27, 2008 09:20 am at 9:20 am |
  25. joe mclain

    Speaking of GAFES, help me understand what "END OF THE BEGINNING" is?? I've heard it in the reverse but never like this. Has McCain lost it?

    September 27, 2008 09:20 am at 9:20 am |
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