First Presidential Debate: Obama Makes Important Personal and National Security Gains


First Presidential Debate: Pre- and post-debate dial results (PDF - 15 K)

Executive Summary

With Barack Obama gaining momentum, John McCain needed to change the dynamic in the race during tonight’s debate and to shift the focus of the campaign onto friendlier terrain. Instead, Democracy Corps research finds that McCain essentially held his ground in this debate, while Obama emerged with higher personal favorability and increased confidence in his ability to handle critical foreign policy and national security issues.

During and after the debate, Democracy Corps conducted a set of dial and focus groups among 45 undecided voters in St. Louis, Missouri. These voters had an unmistakably Republican tilt, voting for President Bush by a 2-to-1 margin in 2004 and self-identifying as 33 percent Republican and 27 percent Democrat. But playing on his perceived strength of national security and before a friendly audience, McCain could only manage a draw among this group. Of our 45 initial undecided voters, a quarter moved to Obama and a quarter to McCain after the debate with the rest remaining undecided. Moreover, by a 38 to 27 percent margin these voters said that Obama won this debate.

Key Findings

A look at the underlying numbers shows that Obama made important gains that could endure through Election Day. These undecided voters had a strong positive reaction to Obama on a personal level. Before the debate, just 40 percent viewed Obama positively, but this skyrocketed to 69 percent after the debate - a remarkable 29-point gain that left him more personally popular than McCain despite this group’s conservative leanings. He also made large strides on being seen as independent, from 44 percent to 65 percent. And in head-to-head matchups against McCain, Obama made significant gains on who “shares your values” and is “on your side."

McCain did not fair as well. His personal standing also improved, but not to nearly the same degree as Obama’s. And while he made impressive gains on being a “maverick,” he actually lost slight ground on “offering a different path than Bush,” showing that these gains were more about style than substance. Moreover, McCain either remained stagnant or lost ground on nearly every other issue we tested. He went into the debate being seen as the more negative candidate by a 7-point margin and expanded that dubious honor to 26 points by the conclusion of the debate.

The initial discussion of our country’s financial crisis was not decisive for either candidate. McCain received his highest mark here while talking about the need to reign in pork spending while Obama repeatedly saw the dials spike when discussing his plan for middle plan tax cuts. In the end, Obama expanded his 7-point lead on who would better handle the economy to 15 points.

The bigger story was the change on security issues. Obama entered at a severe disadvantage on national security with these undecided but Republican-leaning voters, losing the initial matchup on this issue by a 63-point margin, but he managed to close this gap by 20 points over the course of the debate. He also made significant gains on who would do better on foreign policy (closing the gap with McCain by 8 points) and on the war on terrorism (cutting a 40-point McCain lead to 24 points). Obama’s repeated focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan was likely a main driver of this improvement, as his dial reading spiked when outlining his aggressive policy on taking on al Qaeda and the Taliban. On Iraq, Obama made significant progress in reassuring voters that he will not take precipitous action in withdrawing from Iraq with the percentage saying that he “will leave Iraq too quickly” does not describe him well increasing from 33 percent to 47 percent. On one of the most important issues to these voters - who will do a better job achieving energy independence - Obama strongly outperformed McCain, more than doubling an already impressive 20-point lead on the issue to 44 points. Obama scored some of his highest marks on our dials when talking about the need to make America energy independent. Even those who felt McCain won the debate agreed in our follow-up focus groups that Obama was the more persuasive candidate on energy independence.

In the end, Obama’s primary imperative tonight was to pass the commander-in-chief test. He achieved that with many of these voters. Before the debate, only 40 percent agreed that Obama “has what it takes” to be president, but this number increased to a majority of 51 percent by the end of the night.

Following the debate, we conducted two focus group discussions - one with voters who moved toward Obama and one with voters who moved toward McCain. The clearest takeaway was that there was no single standout moment from the debate that drove voters toward a particular candidate. In both cases, people were moved by the way the candidates conducted themselves. For Obama shifters, they found him energetic, ready to take on the job, and very respectful of McCain while strongly stating his case. This was a stark contrast with McCain, whom they viewed as simply old, tired, and consumed with petty semantic criticisms over strategy vs. tactics or whether we talk to Iran with or without pre-conditions. For the McCain shifters, it was completely the opposite. They felt McCain was eloquent and experienced, unlike the not-ready-for-prime-time Obama who they perceived as ‘immature’ and ‘petulant.’

Tonight’s first Presidential debate is not likely to fundamentally change the dynamics of the race, but Barack Obama went a long way towards crossing an important threshold on national security, and in the process made important and impressive gains on key personal measures.