I’ve found a few very good polls on Barack Obama and John McCain’s first debate, and they all say the same thing: Obama handily beat McCain. CBS: 39 percent for Obama and 24 percent for McCain. CNN: 51-38. USA Today/Gallup: 46-34. But as usual the top line numbers only tell part of the story.
Among undecided voters, the most important group of debate watchers, McCain still lost, though by a slightly narrower margin. The CBS poll only interviewed undecideds and gave a 15-point advantage for Obama, and the USA Today/Gallup breakout of undecideds gave Obama a 10-point lead at 43-33. Even more interesting, an L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll interviewed the same set of voters before and after the debate and showed a full 2-point gain by Obama for the “if the election were held today” question. Before the debate, Obama led 48-45, afterward he led by 49-44.
These numbers show some serious problems for McCain, especially considering the the topic of this debate, foreign policy, should have played to his strengths. The L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll showed McCain actually lost support on the question of who would be best at “achieving success in Iraq,” (from 52 to 48) and Obama gained three points on “protecting the country from terrorism” (from 31 to 34). McCain still has a commanding lead on those issues in this poll, but the CNN poll looks far worse. More than half of respondents, 52 percent, said that after the debate, they felt Obama would “better handle” the war in Iraq, to 47 percent for McCain. McCain edges out Obama on the question of terrorism by four points (49-45), but again McCain should be well ahead of Obama on these issues as they’ve formed the core of his campaign message for two years.
On the issue of the day, the financial crisis, Obama leads McCain 54 percent to 36 percent on who would better handle things, according to the CNN poll. CBS puts the number among undecideds at 66-42, and USA Today/Gallup reports “37% of debate watchers said that the debate gave them less confidence in John McCain on economic matters rather than more.”
As I said on Friday, McCain seemed unprepared. His performance, according to the CNN poll, made him seem less likable, less sincere and more out of touch than Obama. For a candidate who ran ads attacking Obama as an out-of-touch rock star, Friday did not go well for McCain. He still has two more debates to turn this thing around, but as Karl Rove pointed out last week, the winner of the first debate has historically received a 4.2 point bump in the polls.
Still plenty of time before November, but right now Obama has the momentum.
Colorado Independent’s blogumnist (blogger-columnist) Jeff Bridges has worked in Democratic politics for the last 10 years, serving as communications director for two congressional races in Colorado and two governors races in the Deep South. Bridges also worked as a legislative assistant in Washington, D.C., with a focus on military and small-business issues.