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. carolflowery

    McCain not only knew more about the other nations, he's been there, Obama came off as a student who had only studied about them, you could tell he was in a four day hideaway in training session, and they had even gotten rid of some of his ahhhhhhhs and ummmmms props
    to the person who trained him.

    September 27, 2008 09:20 am at 9:20 am |
  2. ricardo williams

    I'm not surprised. McCain was chasing Obama with tight, plastic. fake grin all night while Obama was throwing punches at him. McCain and Bush are the same, so if Bush ran the economy into the ground we can't call on McCain to fix it. McCain has nothing different to offer.

    We need new energy
    We need education
    We need health care.

    Everybidy talk about taxes. Most of my pay check goes to paying medical bills, so tax break is not on my agenda. I want medical breaks. Obama is offering medical breaks.

    I want to learn new skills to get better jobs. Obama has offered incentives to make this affordable.

    I want a new energy policy that will open new doors and both candidates has similar plans.

    I want Obama as my president.

    September 27, 2008 09:21 am at 9:21 am |
  3. inat

    one of the most meaningless polls ever. A little skewed to the left, dont ya think? nice "sample"

    September 27, 2008 09:21 am at 9:21 am |
  4. Sam in Orlando

    McCain does not come off as a happy warrior at all.

    September 27, 2008 09:22 am at 9:22 am |
  5. sharon

    As is the case with Obama's supporters, I found him not only naive, but disrespectful and rude. When Obama was speaking, McCain listened quietly, without attempting to interrupt or interject his opinion. Obama did not reciprocate. There were times when I had trouble hearing what McCain was saying over the attempts by Obama to cut him off. Whatever became of the role of a moderator and the rules of debate? Obama may have dominated the debate with his rude and aggressive behavior (and if that constitutes a "win" these days, so be it), but McCain was not only far more diplomatic and polite, but knowledgeable, frank, and realistic, presenting down-to-earth, real solutions to the very real problems of our time.

    September 27, 2008 09:22 am at 9:22 am |
  6. Scott L

    Obama immediately deferred foreign policy to his VP.


    This debate was not as bad as liberals claimed it would be for McCain. Media calling it a draw with "slight" edge going to Obama.

    Reality is, this debate helped independents realize McCain is NOT as bad as they think he is.

    Obama said over 5 times that "John is right" or "I agree with John"

    I would never say that.

    In addition, Obama said uuuuhhh ummmm about 8 times to 1 that McCain did.

    September 27, 2008 09:22 am at 9:22 am |
  7. J.P.

    Who calls into phone polls and on-line polls? Young tweens and american idol fans. Really, can these "polls" be trusted to say who the american people think won the debate. It's rediculous. Yet, CNN posts this at legitimate news in the hopes of smearing McCain. a FOX news poll showed McCain won the dabate by over 80%. I trust FOX's poll as muh as I trust CNN's.

    September 27, 2008 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  8. Emily Francis-Roach

    How could Obama have possibly won?!? John McCain did an excellent job in the debate! He exhibited poise under pressure and definite knowledge and experience. From watching these two men, it is clear who should be our next president. Barack Obama came across as a chastised child. If he folds under the pressure from lack of political knowledge/experience in a debate with McCain, how will he perform on a hostile worldly stage?

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

    Very simple.If you like the past you like McCain,if you are concerned about the future you like Obama.McCain was elitist,condecending and demeaning.His little lecture on past failed foreign policy will do nothing about the future.You cannot take the surge from a war that should never have happened and make that your main agenda to win a new election.Obama did surprise me with his demeanor and looked Presidential and McCain looked mad and talked more about the past then the future.I would say McCain broke even and Obama just prooved he has the chops in foreign policy of the future,and McCain has knowlege of the past.No real winner just more confidence in Obama.

    September 27, 2008 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  10. David

    Who shall dare stand in the way of this mans destiny?

    September 27, 2008 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  11. jmh

    The elder shall lead the younger. Obama just repeated the same ole lines. McCain is more on top of the issues, and Barry who is " Tom" you don't even know who your running against. Obama needs to appear on Jeff Foxworthy's show because any 5th grader could debate him.

    September 27, 2008 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  12. Dan the Man

    I think Obama did a great job. He stuck to his guns and I am now very determined to vote for him. I was on the fence on who to vote for. I did see and studied body language. McCain looked down, he would never look at Obama. He has that smirky laugh that Bush has. I just felt very uncomfortable with that. Tonight I saw another 4 years of the Bush Administration in McCains eyes. I just can not go through that for another four years.

    September 27, 2008 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  13. McCain for Pres.

    It was clear to me that John McCain knows what he is talking about because of his many years experience in Government. Barack Obama clearly does not understand that dictators and terrorists are not interested in talking, even though he has changed what he said at the beginning of his campaign. Since to do anything in Washington you need bi-partisan support, I still think McCain will get more done than Obama will and John McCain is really sincere when he says he wants to help the American people.

    September 27, 2008 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  14. mitch

    barack clearly won. republicans didnt listen, apparently. but,then ,they never do. always stuck in their own little worlds with no concern for anyone else.

    September 27, 2008 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  15. Anonymous

    "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."

    Hey CNN, this is good info to know regarding this poll. How about you provide us this type of detailed info with all future polls (percentage of democrats, independents and republicans of each poll) - since you spend so much time discussing them. Maybe it will help explain the constant movement in the polls that we've seen throughout this election.

    September 27, 2008 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  16. A Boston, MA

    Obama definitely got the edge on McSame. McSame's living off of his sketchy experience but has nothing to offer the 21'st century. It's a whole new world McSame!

    Obama 08'

    September 27, 2008 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  17. Bimal Ghose

    On Iran question, let Senator McCain what Secretary of State Baker told CNN on that discussion. Secretay Baker said he started meeting his counterpart in Iran without any precondition and asked the next President of USA to start a dialogue with Iran. The same position was taken by Secretary Kissinger to start UNCONDITIONAL dialogue with Iran at Secretary of State level. Any kid understands that before meeting Head of State, the Secretary of State prepares the groundwork for meeting of Heads of States.

    Senator McCain you do not know what you are talking about.

    September 27, 2008 09:24 am at 9:24 am |
  18. typical mccain lies!!!


    OBAMA/BIDEN 08,12

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


    I’m a 40 year old male
    Who’s never voted before
    Irresponsible, some might say
    But I wasn’t impressed with the lure

    This year is totally different
    I was excited by Hillary’s run
    But then came Barrack Obama
    Of whom Hillary poked fun

    However, I was still torn
    But as I watched each and every debate
    I started to really recognize
    Something I truly hate

    Hillary was fueled by anger
    And tried to intimidate Obama
    She looked less like a President
    And more like an “unfit mama”

    Although I am a Veteran
    I’ve never been a McCain fan
    He served this country…as I did
    But needs an “anger management” plan

    I was happy when he chose Palin
    But now she’s being “revealed”
    She can’t handle tough interviews
    They tried to keep that concealed

    I don’t want an “angry” leader
    We need calm in the midst of the storm
    A leader with the right demeanor
    Who truly believes in reform

    The cards are now on the table
    My opinions will now have a voice
    I’ll register to vote today
    Obama / Biden will be my choice

    September 27, 2008 09:24 am at 9:24 am |
  20. White woman from Nevada

    How can you compare the two ? They are in different categories- McCain with his lifetime of service and Obama- an empty suit and a petty adventurist. With his style and record, Obama would make a great bartender but you just cant sell him as a real presidential contender. Most people dont take him seriously, as far as I know.

    September 27, 2008 09:24 am at 9:24 am |
  21. Larry

    We saw Joe Biden' s reaction to the Debate on most of the networks; but no Sarah Palin . A potential future president cannot be shielded forever!

    September 27, 2008 09:25 am at 9:25 am |
  22. WhoIsPalin?

    Obama showed respect for both his opponent and the post for which he is running. On the other hand McCain showed contempt almost to the point of outright disdain to Obama and most importantly to the millions of Undicided voters watching last night.

    September 27, 2008 09:25 am at 9:25 am |
  23. NC want NEW Change

    I hate that CNN and other media said that McCain needed a game changer. They ONLY give him an excuse to START more DRAMA from him and his camp (including Palin). With McCain playing childish games since this election be ginned, is saying FIND another DRAMA to throw into the game and TRY to get the American voters to think you ARE the world SAVIOR, take for instance him going to Washington to save the crisis, but was more silent then any super hero.
    What's next, Will he START more DRAMA for Palin NOT to show up for her debate with Biden?………Will he STOP her as he did last night from talking to the PRESS after the debate?……….Will she answer the question with full and detailed answers?…….What will he USE as his NEXT drama to DESTRACT the voters before Nov. 4th?
    I AM excited about the debate between Biden and Palin, LET’S hope we will see this DEBATE without McCain grandstanding, I hope he see that DOESN”T work in his favor.

    Obama/Biden 08

    September 27, 2008 09:25 am at 9:25 am |
  24. Canadian

    What McCain demonstrates is an utter distain for those that oppose him. He did it To Romney and he is doing it again to Obama.

    Is this the type of person we want in the White House? I think not!

    I think that this is a trait that will have carryover in his dealings with other Nations...

    Just look at how he dealt with the issue of the leader of Spain

    September 27, 2008 09:25 am at 9:25 am |
  25. Lifelong Repub 4 Obama

    The fact that McCain never spoke directly to Obama speaks volumes. Did McCain's handlers warn him that looking at the enemy might spark a flare up of his infamous temper tirades? McCain's presentation looked less like a debate than a rant to the camera.

    I appreciate that Obama was able to acknowledge that McCain was right in his analysis of some issues, while disagreeing with him on many items. Obama presented a rational, reflective, statesmanlike alternative to the heavy-handed bullying we have come to expect from our national leaders. Here is a leader that will build bridges and regain the trust of the global community.

    September 27, 2008 09:26 am at 9:26 am |
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