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. Sophia

    Obama has the essential ingredients to be a leader. If you watch McCain it is important for him to be right rather than doing the right thing. That message is constantly embedded in his lectures every single time. Oh by the way McCain doesn't understand that we are in the 21st century-need to move forward and need to change!

    September 27, 2008 09:37 am at 9:37 am |
  2. Tracy

    How about "I have a bracelet too John...uh uh but I don't remember the name of who it is from...." Obama is an empty suit – a toy put up by the Democratic Party. How disrespectful to call Senator McCain by his first name. I'm proud of Senator McCain who called Senator Obama by his proper title. Obama is just propelling the disrespect that is at the root of the cultural problems in this country. McCain is someone we can believe in to keep us safe and to keep decisions about how to spend our hard-earned money with us. I work too hard to be paying for disrespectful lazy people to automatically 'have the right to a college education and home ownership'. This isn't a socialist nation – you work harder than the next guy and you get further ahead. These socialist ideals are forcing the racial lines deeper and deeper. And if that's what America wants, thank God we're only here for 80 years.

    September 27, 2008 09:37 am at 9:37 am |
  3. Stunts and Lies is the McCain Strategy

    Obama was the clear winner. His opponent told so many lies in this campaign that people did not know what to believe. I think he surprised many people with his foreign policy knowledge. Plus I think people are just tired of MCthusela's gimmicks. Vote Obama and end this drama!!!

    September 27, 2008 09:37 am at 9:37 am |
  4. Mary McDole

    Curious who CNN used for polling purposes after the debate....??
    Did they actually watch the debate ?...listen to the discussions...?
    Even more important....did they have any understanding of the issues ?
    My best guess is, no they did not...but then again, I've grown to expect a biased opinion from CNN...always promoting an agenda...
    Hopefully America will decide and vote based on integrity, qualification, experience, and patriotism.
    Oh, for the days of simply reporting the news.....

    September 27, 2008 09:37 am at 9:37 am |
  5. Saidu Bello

    In my opinion Obama remain the better President for the American people.He a young with a big dream to lead the World to greatest high and peace.Not a Government focusing her policies on terror and colonization of the islamic World.


    September 27, 2008 09:38 am at 9:38 am |
  6. Veda Gundanna

    Obama excelled in explaining his stand on policies – both domestic and foreign policy issues. He was giving a more realistic and balanced approach.

    McCain's focus was only attack politics, and sly smiles. He even seemed to frown at Obama, and scold him. Not once did he recognize Obama's accomplishments. Whereas Obama gave credit where it belongs – even to his opponenent, many times. This clearly shows how good a concensus-builder Obama can be. How can McCain claim to be a consensus-builder if he treats his opponents this bad? I wonder ...

    Just an example of McCain's unrealistic policy suggestions: His "bold" approach for handling the current level of deficits plus the additional $700 Billion that Government has to come up with for the Bailout Plan was: How about freezing everything except Defence and Veteran affairs!!!! What a short-sighted approach it would be – how about education, universal health insurance, energy independence initiatives etc. etc.?! If McCain's suggestion is adopted, it will result in putting the future of America at stake! He seems to have no clue about how to uplift the people of his own country. God only can Bless and Help America!

    September 27, 2008 09:38 am at 9:38 am |
  7. Amanda

    Let's face the facts. These debates don't usually tell the average American enough details for them to choose a candidate. All that it does is pit two rivals against each other to see how they react under pressure. I felt that Obama showed strength, composure, and respectfulness. McCain got heated, wavering, and quite honestly-disrespectful in his comments towards the other candidate.
    I say Obama took the first debate. Kudos!

    September 27, 2008 09:38 am at 9:38 am |
  8. Teacher for Obama

    I believe a person should look another person in the eye when speaking to them. It's what I teach my students and my son. This debate had two people participating and interaction was encouraged by the moderator. It reinforced my opinion that McCain doesn't have the temperament to be President.

    September 27, 2008 09:38 am at 9:38 am |
  9. THE O

    It was more then an edge Obama was the clear cut winner. Mccain talked about the past and the good old days, Obama talked about our future and how to get us there. Mccain talked about war and taking on the world alone, Obama talked about diplomacy and how to work with the rest of the world.

    BARACK THE VOTE!!!!!!!!!

    September 27, 2008 09:38 am at 9:38 am |
  10. James in NJ

    I thought Obama's " You were wrong on Iraq..You were wrong that it would be easy.." comments were very good at bringing it to McCain.

    McCain did ok but he did not overpower Barack. In the end Obama hit a triple play while McCain hit a double play. Unfortunately there were no Home Runs in my opinion!
    I wish McCain would stop talking about "The Surge" that is a tired argument and he uses it way too much!
    In the end I am glad McCain decided to show up! And it was a good debate.

    Still Obama/Biden in 08!

    September 27, 2008 09:38 am at 9:38 am |
  11. Janet Jacme

    McCain did a lot better than I expected, because I've seen him bumble through his stump speech several times- However, many of his answers were simply recycled from the very same stump speeches, and I was not impressed.

    Overall, McCain came across as mean-spirited, condescending, and since he refused or was unable to make eye contact with Senator Obama, he seemed very insecure.

    Obama, on the other hand, kept his trademark "um"s and "ah"s to the barest minimum, rarely pausing, and demonstrated a complete grasp of the subjects he discussed.

    IF I were undecided? I'd give this round to Obama.

    September 27, 2008 09:38 am at 9:38 am |
  12. ML - California

    McCain needs to support the American people on many of the critical issues and I have yet to hear much. McCain is very strong on his knowledge regarding International affairs, but that does not mean necessarily that the American people support his strategy. McCain ending up in Washington regarding the Bailout and attemptiing to not show for the debate and not appearing on Letterman, did not score points for McCain. Obama did not do this, and it appears that Obama is more concerned for the American people. Hopefully, future debates will be more meaningful.

    September 27, 2008 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  13. Wanda in Montana

    I was completely disappointed in John McCain last night. His sharpest jabs were the same old and tired lines he's used for 2 years on the campaign trail. It's as if he couldn't come up with anything fresh. I know he's not "Miss Congeniality" already. Tell me something new!

    The only thing more old and tired than McCain's platitudes was McCain himself. He huddled over his podium as if the burdons of the fight have brought on osteoperosis.

    This debate convinced me that it is time for a calm, intelligent, adult to run the strongest nation in the world. McCain is a petulant little jerk. He couldn't even look Obama in the eye. Was this shame because he knows he's run a dirty campaign or contempt? Either way, it was deplorable.

    September 27, 2008 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  14. DFoster GA

    Obama had a much better stance on the economy. He actually has a plan that will benifit the larger majority of Americans. McCain struggled with this part of the debate. But when it came to foriegn policy, McCain stepped up his game. Unfortunately for him, Obama has a very stong grasp of our foriegn relations. I have to give it to Obama in the end because McCain just doesn't have a strong enough grasp of what we are going through here at home. I think Obama should have him as his Secretary of State after the election. He seems to know a lot of foreign leaders ... he must have better teachers than Sarah Palin.

    September 27, 2008 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  15. Mary

    I feel that Obama did a great job in the debate. The fact that he told the entire country when he felt Mc Cain was right is the sign of a great leader. He gave credit where credit was due. Mc Cain on the other hand constantly telling Obama You don't understand is the sign of an arrogant old man. You never make yourself look good by trying to make someone else look bad. The fact that he disagrees does not mean he doesn't understand. CNN comending Mc Cain for remembering names and places is ridiculous. All he did was name drop.

    September 27, 2008 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  16. John, Catholic

    On the Economy:
    McCain: "We should decrease regulation and allow the market to correct itself."
    Obama: "We did that and the economy is in ruins so now what?"
    McCain: "There should be an increase in oversight of wall street and more to protect the tax payers if there is a bailout."
    Obama: "I am glad to hear you like my suggestion."

    On Health Care and Education:
    McCain: "We should privatize health care and education."
    Obama: "Let say we do that, then what."
    McCain: "Then the people will be free to choose for themselves the education and health care they want."
    Obama: "Okay, so everyone wants the best health care in the nation. Everyone wants to go to Yale, Harvard, and Stanford. Because they are privatized we are all going to get that right?"
    McCain: "No, the market will dictate the level that each person gets."
    Obama: "So your proposal rewards the rich and punishes the poor. Those who have more private income will get better health care than those who only have the privatized health care. Those with more money will get to go to Yale, Harvard, or Stanford while those with less will be forced to go to what ever school they can afford. Interesting that the choice you offer people is the choice to have substandard health care or education because they do not have their own private fortune.

    September 27, 2008 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  17. Mitzie

    I fully expected that Barack Obama would win this debate and I feel strongly that he did. I am an Obama supporter. John McCain, however, did better than expected despite his attempt at bailing out of the debate. I disagree with McCain but felt he held his own.

    When McCain kept pounding on Government spending, I thought Barack did a great job of bringing the topic back to reality by giving an idea of the real expenditures the government is faciing vs the earmarks that McCain rails against.

    September 27, 2008 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  18. Alison B

    After watching the debate if I was an undecided individual I would clearly be able to make a concise decision from body language and content of this debate.

    McCain appear afraid to answer on what he would do on a bailout I think that might be cause he did not want to say on national tv that he would have to agree with Bush once again. His facial expression showed anger but he contained himself but i thought he was gonna explode

    Obama on theother hand was poised and looked presidential. He had eye contact when speaking which is a very important thing thought to many as a child to they should have eye contact with someone when speaking to them cause in my opinion that McCain's lack of eye contact would make me consider that he was less than honest with the american people.

    Overall imy grade for them

    McCain D
    Obama A+

    Foreign Policy
    McCain C
    Obama B

    Body language
    McCain F
    Obama A+

    September 27, 2008 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  19. Concerned for America

    Racist comments in Barrack's books
    Photos of him in his Taliban uniform
    McCain in his US of America Military Uniform
    Let's not forget 911 – what better way to attack us than from the inside out.

    Obama showed last night his pushy side wanting to walk all over McCain when McCain said something he didn't like. Obama agreed with McCain's comments over and over again and tried to push President Bush at McCain.

    I think that McCain clearly WON this debate, and Obama although a good speaker, didn't do as well as these polls are showing.
    That is my opinion and I'm voting ALL AMERICAN MCCain-Palin for President 2008.

    September 27, 2008 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  20. Larry

    Obama was more polished, informed and, in my opinion, "presidential". And equally important, he looked John McCain directly in the eye...which McCain refused to return the same courtesy. If McCain can't look his competitor directly eye to eye, particularly when he is challenging his competitor's record, he certainly won't look the American people in the eye and give them the straight story.

    September 27, 2008 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  21. ChrisD

    Ha!!! What a joke this poll is. Obama just got a history lesson. If some how people thought he came out on top they are really drinking the kool-aid.
    McCain/Palin 08
    Hillary 2012

    September 27, 2008 09:40 am at 9:40 am |
  22. Tony

    Both men performed well. However, if one had to pick a "winner", it was obviously Obama.

    Somemof mteh mistakes that I think McCain made were:

    1. He never looked at Obama, even once, during the entire debate.
    2. He never looked into the camera and addressed the people head on, as Obama did consistently.
    3. McCain said at least a dozen times that Obama did not understand and did not get it. He was in full attack mode and it was obvious taht he was trying to contain his famoous temper.
    4. He continually referred to 20, 30, 40 years ago, which just reminded one of how old he is.
    5) He said over and over again things that he knew could easily be proven as lies, distortions, etc. Yet he continued to say Obama did or Obama said.

    After next Thursday's debate with Biden, Palin will implode and she and McCain will plummet in the poles.

    My prediction is this: COme Monday or Tuesday of next week, an announcement will be made that Palin is dropping out of the race, for whatever bogus reason, and McCain will pick a MAN for the position hoping that with so little time left the new candidate will not be subject to nedia scrutiny.

    September 27, 2008 09:41 am at 9:41 am |
  23. BK

    Obama campaign says to watch the debate on CNN. We all knew CNN was the Obama network and this just proved it. So much for your fair and balanced news and you can tell this by these headlines. Is it a surprise to you that your polls show Obama won with you being Obama's network. Look at the blogs most people have moved to other blogs because you are so biased.

    Obama was prepackaged and seeemed to have meorized his lines. He made faces and was on the offensive. He said I agree with John just like he did with Hillary. He does not have one idea of his on. He also lied about Kissinger. I would not trust Obama to run anything, let alone this country. McCain was much more sure of hisself and knowlegeable than Obama.

    September 27, 2008 09:41 am at 9:41 am |
  24. joy

    It is crazy that the Repubs don't watch debates or read anything, and then blindly goes with a Rebub just because... they are still calling Obama a muslim!!! Repubs please read and get your facts straight!!! Mccain is a dunce. Palin is a greater dunce!!! To McCain's defence, he has been a public figure for years, and this gives him a decent amount of non-academic knowledge, but he is still a dunce. Also, he rode the coat tail of money and fame, not the education or law degree, and political science route that I've always thought was a prerequisite to become a world leader! McCain got the hook up, and Palin who is dumber than a brick ... and very ambitious... is trying to inject herself into the highest position ever... without even earning it.

    September 27, 2008 09:42 am at 9:42 am |
  25. Vision

    At one point during the debate my girlfriend called from work, and was asking me did I just see what Obama had said, and of course I had. I had turned the volume down on the TV for a moment so I could here her better, and what was clear from no sound and just visual Mccain= Surly,Bitter,Contempous,Angry Obama= Energetic,Thoughtful,Conversing,Engaging If nothing else Mccain Looked like Nixon Obama Looked like Kennedy


    September 27, 2008 09:42 am at 9:42 am |
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