Princeton Election Consortium

A first draft of electoral history. Since 2004

By the numbers: Obama wins first debate (updated)

September 27th, 2008, 1:01am by Sam Wang


The transcript of the first debate is here. Several pieces of survey evidence point to an Obama win. Obama did better among undecided voters in a CBS survey [PDF]. Frank Luntz’s Fox focus group (read the 11:35 entry) showed that a majority was “moved” by Obama’s performance, especially his criticism of McCain’s judgment errors on the Iraq war. CNN/Opinion Dynamics has a phone poll showing that 51% thought Obama won vs. 38% McCain.

Update. A nugget: the CBS report PDF says that among uncommitted voters, 46% came away with a better opinion of Obama, 8% worse, and 46% no change. For comparison, 32% came away with a better opinion of McCain, 21% worse, and 47% no change. Obama’s better/worse split was 5.8 to 1 compared with McCain’s 1.5 to 1. There were a number of shifts in Obama’s favor, the largest on being “more in touch with the needs and problems of people like you.” Views of McCain didn’t change much, perhaps because he is considered to be a known quantity. The real targets in this debate were the uncommitteds, and they came away liking Obama.

A general comment: partisans are generally unable to assess debates accurately. They observe the candidates from a polarized viewpoint. Witness the highly divergent reactions among partisans here, here, and here. The last one seems closest to what a typical uncommitted person thought. In this regard I found the surveys to be clarifying. Or – just read James Fallows (1,2,3).

CNN had a test group insta-reaction showing reactions among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. in a tracker plot at the bottom of the screen. This was addictive to watch. Obama spent more time well above the average, though he sometimes sagged toward the end of his longer answers. On the other hand, during an answer on Russia I noticed Obama’s numbers soaring among all three groups.

According to the same tracker, McCain scored well at certain points when talking about the financial sector crisis and about runaway federal spending. McCain called for a freeze on non-defense non-entitlement spending, which turns out to be only a small fraction of the budget. But people don’t know that. When McCain made repeated attacks on Obama’s readiness and experience, audience reaction tended to go downward, especially toward the end. He came off as mean, even to some conservatives (here’s an an extended reaction). Here’s a reaction from Washington Monthly.

My own quick reaction: The criticism that Obama is a poor match for McCain in foreign policy is over. Substantively, their prior positions came through fairly clearly. In some ways the debate was a draw. McCain was calmer than I had been expecting him to be, but his contempt for Obama shone through. He never looked Obama in the eye. This error of tone may be discussed over the weekend.

Overall, I believe this was a bad night for John McCain. He needed to win, and he didn’t even get a clear draw. Look for Obama’s lead to solidify or widen over the weekend.

Update: MediaCurves has Obama winning 61-39 among independents. Obama led in this group on all foreign policy issues, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran. The largest gap was for Russia, the answer I flagged earlier.

MediaCurves cell phone survey after Debate 1

MediaCurves cell phone survey after Debate 1

Tags: 2008 Election

6 Comments so far ↓

  • stephanie

    obamas the shit!

  • V. Vance

    I just thought McCain came across as very old – an old man, living in the past, and unable (or unwilling) to move with the times. I don’t know why he wouldn’t look at Obama, but it certainly didn’t make him seem more likable.

  • gray Robertson

    1st off, thank you so much for this labour of love. 2nd, for the comment on the clarity of partisans. I am partisan, I am not for 24hr News Networks, soundbites, daily polls although I check yours 3x/day, or the colour of ones tie.

    Watching the debate I was extremely disappointed that McCain did so well, in fact I thought he beat Obama. I know this is drama, theatre, but I wanted an overwhelming advantage, so I am very relieved to read that the consensus amongst independents is that Obama was more favourable, and that partisans are unreliable analysts!

    My analysis though is that McCain speaks frankly like a football coach and it works because that is about as complex the world is for him, and the electorate. Obama has 2 problems. 1st, he knows the problems are more complex and has a great desire to explain with no time to, and secondly he does not believe the myth that everything American is the best and most virtuous. As such he has to talk to people without waking them up from their American Dream, and that involves allot of contradiction and omission.

  • Observer

    I thought that on the substance, the two were close in getting their points across. However, I did perceive Obama as doing much better on presentation: For a simple but strong difference, his pleasantly low voice is much easier to listen to than McCain’s.

    It’s interesting that so many people have said McCain showed contempt by not looking at Obama. I’m not sure that’s what happened. I thought the revealing moment was when Lehrer asked Obama, early, on to address his comments more to McCain than Lehrer. McCain somewhat impishly responded, ‘Did you think I wouldn’t be able to hear him?’ To me, this plus McCain’s overall rigidity of physical presentation suggested that McCain’s well known discomfort with formal speaking situations was at work. He was working very hard to stay focused, on message, and in control of himself. And in this light he paced himself quite well, amping up his performance as it got later. I thought this was very good for him, as it refuted an expectation that some had stated before the debate, that he would tire in the last 30 minutes. The price for McCain, though, as so often, was that he came across as tight all through the evening.

  • Jon

    As an Obama supporter…

    The whole time I watched the debate, I kept thinking… compared to Kerry/Gore in 2004… these guys are lasers.

    Both looked better than I expected. I’m really surprized to see McCain shift so drastically. He looks so bad in a lot of public speaking events… And rarely has control over his temper. Although I have no proof and this is complete conjecture on my part…

    It wouldn’t completely surprize me to find out that McCain was on some pharmaceuticals in order to come off that sharp and mellow… Something like aderall.. (akin to amphetatmines)..and perhaps Zoloft.

  • Joseph Marshall

    Some noteworthy things: today’s Gallup Daily, shows the gap widening to five points between Obama and McCain with both daily declines of 1 point for McCain and rises of 1.5 points for Obama from 9/25 on. Gallup suggests that this indicates a momentum for Obama going into last night.

    It may be too fine a grained of reading for one poll, but it suggests to me that once the “bailout” meeting with Bush imploded, John McCain’s “suspension” of his campaign and his attempt to avoid the debate led to an exceptionally direct and clear shift from McCain to Obama, rather than the general drifting back and forth we usually see.

    Given that McCain was clearly prepared to debate and under no disadvantage from the past week’s events, I draw the conclusion that the hidden agenda for the postponement was to prevent the Palin/Biden debate from occurring and, perhaps, to delay Obama’s appearance against McCain one-on-one.

    We know by report that McCain has a temper, and he seemed to be in it last night. If my surmise is right, it’s easy to see why. To my mind, the most significant thing about the post-debate polling was Obama’s sharp improvement on the CBS internals “ready to be President” and “understands your problems”. I suspect this is due as much as anything to all the time the moderator spent on the current financial crisis, though Obama did just fine with the rest of it.

    These are exactly the areas that McCain’s attack ads and his blogosphere supporters have been trying to hammer on. So circumstances, and Obama’s steadiness in insisting that the debate go forward, have probably neutralized a tremendous amount of McCain’s carefully allotted prior ad dollars at a single stroke.

    Moreover, the media dynamics of McCain’s week long spurt ahead after the conventions centered around comparing Obama to Palin, rather than to McCain himself, who actually retreated into the background. This was particularly the case in the conservative blogosphere, where the Republican candidates unequivocally switched roles, to the immense relief of most people over there.

    McCain is now paying dearly for this. I’m sure you will agree that the odds on Palin making very many gains on “ready to be President” and “understands our problems” are quite long. Having set up the Obama/Palin comparison, McCain’s campaign and supporters have created a debate atmosphere where no one can possibly cut Palin any slack.

    The only even remotely positive outcome is that somehow Palin will merely survive without making too large a fool of herself. She cannot be dumped, for no possible excuse could now hide the fact that she is being dumped for her inadequacy to the job. And if she is held onto, she may very well demonstrate that inadequacy once and for all live on national television.

    In either case, McCain will be carrying the albatross of an impetuous and spur-of-the-moment decision of massively bad judgment, just when he needed good judgment the most. I can’t think of anything worse for his own reputation of “ready to be President”, can you?

    But the real mistake was not a tactical one. It was strategic. McCain and his campaign chose to run exactly the type of campaign Hillary Clinton lost with: use media to wrap your candidate in some nebulous and undefined “readiness to lead”, avoid any commitment about where we are all being led to, and spend immense amounts of time, effort, and money to bash your opponent’s credentials. Had they not done this, there would have been no reason to choose a Palin in a poke over a VP of more obvious qualifications.

    It didn’t work for Hillary and it has not worked for John. It has been defeated in both cases by Obama’s steely patience, self-confidence, and resolve to stay on track. It has also been defeated by the adaptability of Obama and his campaign. Early in the Spring, when the attacks centered around his lack of time abroad, he went on a trip and took the entire press corps with him, leaving the other guys flat footed. Obama has never really lost what he gained from this.

    Then, when McCain’s people made the incredible mistake of running the stolen Hillary Clinton footage during the DNC, rather than after, all the major speakers rose to the occasion, and Obama himself made one of the best acceptance speeches ever. Obama has never really lost what he gained from this, either.

    And by patiently waiting out the Palin Bubble, he is in a perfect place to benefit from its bursting. I don’t think any gains from this debate will be lost, as well.

    If his final victory truly is 300+ electoral votes, it will be largely due to this major strategic mistake and Obama’s personal qualities in meeting it. Which is just about as “ready to be President” as I think anyone could possibly be.