Second Presidential Debate: Undecided Voters Move Decisively Toward Obama


Greenberg Quinlan Rosner / Democracy Corps
Democracy Corps

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Second Presidential Debate: Pre- and post-debate dial results (PDF - 19 K)

 

Executive Summary

Barack Obama once again won tonight’s debate, and undecided voters are prepared to move toward his candidacy, according to Democracy Corps research conducted around tonight’s second presidential debate. Unlike the first debate, when Democracy Corps research showed half the voters remaining undecided and the two candidates splitting the other half, the vote following the second debate showed a decisive shift toward Senator Obama. This debate was a clear victory for Obama who made major gains not just in the vote but also on personal favorability and key attributes like ‘has what it takes to be President,’ which ultimately drove undecided voters into his column.

Democracy Corps conducted dial testing of the debate with 50 undecided voters in Henderson, Nevada, followed by focus group discussions with voters who shifted toward one of the candidates after seeing the debate. These voters were evenly split in terms of partisan identification - 26 percent Democrat, 48 percent Independent, and 26 percent Republican - but 50 percent voted for Bush in 2004, compared to 34 percent who voted for Kerry.

 

Key Findings

  • Like the last debate, these voters felt that Obama was the winner of the debate (38 to 30 percent), but this time the debate also shifted their electoral preferences. After viewing the debate, 42 percent of these voters said they would support Obama if the election were held today, while just 26 percent would support McCain.
  • Obama’s personal favorability rose significantly from 54 to 80 percent after the debate. While McCain’s personal favorability saw a slight 8-point uptick after the debate (from 48 percent to 56 percent), this was marginal compared to Obama’s gains. In both debates now, Obama’s performance has had a profound impact on the attitudes of viewers toward him and his candidacy.
  • Obama’s greatest achievement during tonight’s debate was to reassure voters that he has the stature to be President of the United States. While initially a majority of voters questioned whether Obama has what it takes to be president, by the conclusion of the debate less than a third maintained these doubts. At the end, Obama closed the gap with John McCain on key leadership attributes, and voters were more likely to trust him to make the right decisions for the country.
  • Just like in the first debate, engaging with McCain on foreign policy helped Obama improve his standing on this issue. Obama narrowed McCain’s advantage on foreign policy and national security by double digit margins. And on the war in Iraq, Obama is viewed to be as qualified as McCain to handle the war.
  • Obama continues to hold significant leads on the issues that matter most to voters. A majority favor Obama over McCain on both the economy and health care. McCain made inroads among these voters on retirement and social security, but Obama still finished the debate with a 14-point lead on this issue. McCain’s ongoing strategy to portray Obama as too liberal and someone who will raise Americans’ taxed did not succeed. After the debate, Obama maintained a 16-point advantage on taxes and, more importantly, the proportion of voters seeing him as too liberal went down and the number of voters who saw him as independent rose 26 points.
  • McCain’s negativity led voters to tune out as the debate progressed, which was reflected in dial scores which remained mostly flat. Moreover, McCain made little or no improvement on key attributes such as being tied to special interests and offering a different path from Bush. However, just as after the first presidential debate, McCain did improve his standing as a maverick politician.
  • In the two focus groups we conducted following the debate - one with voters who moved toward Obama and one with voters who moved toward McCain - the differences were very telling and revealed why Obama won the post-debate vote by 16 points.
  • The voters who shifted toward Obama saw clear differences between the candidates that were as much about personal qualities as issues. Obama was seen as sincere and in command of the issues, and voters repeatedly complimented his positive demeanor and willingness to answer questions directly. McCain, by comparison, was seen as evasive, insincere, out of touch, and above all else, negative. These voters were really frustrated with McCain’s ‘nastiness,’ saying it reinforced Obama’s contention that McCain represents more of the same old Bush-style politics. On the issues, health care, foreign policy, and energy independence were the issues where they saw the greatest distinctions between the candidates and clearest evidence that Obama has the right ideas and understanding to move the country forward.
  • The McCain shifters were not enthusiastic about McCain and even complained about the choice of Sarah Palin, who they believe may truly need to fill McCain’s shoes. But they ultimately supported McCain because the debate failed to dispel the strong doubts about Obama that they brought with them prior to tonight. These doubts primarily centered on the questions that have been raised about Obama’s “associations” with dubious characters and whether he has the experience required to achieve all the things that he promises. They did not express a sense that things in the country would improve substantially under a McCain administration, but they were holding back from the unknown Obama.