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Commentary: Did the first debate move the needle?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 30, 2008 - What impact did Friday's presidential debate have on the contest? It's best to wait a few days before making firm assessments. The immediate readings from same day and next day polls might be capturing fleeting impressions. That initial Friday night perception might change after weekend conversations with the neighbors and Monday lunch discussions at the workplace.

But now Tuesday has come, enough dust has settled, and it is time to examine the numbers.

The Friday night polling results were encouraging for Obama. CBS/Knowledge Networks had the most instructive survey. Omitting hard-core supporters of either candidate but including both those leaning toward one or the other as well as the truly undecided, the 483 sampled respondents answered the "who won the debate" question 39 percent Obama and 24 percent McCain. The remaining 37 percent thought it was a tie.

More telling was their change in candidate preference. Asked how they might vote both before and after the debate, Obama increased his margin over McCain from a narrow 36 percent to 34 percent margin to a wider 41 percent to 29 percent.

Other surveys also had good news for Obama. Saturday's Gallup daily tracking poll asked: "Regardless of which candidate you happen to support, who do you think did a better job in last night's debate?" Among political independents, 43 percent said Obama and 33 percent replied McCain.

Friday night's CNN/Opinion Research survey of debate watchers also had 51 percent thinking Obama had done "the best job in the debate" compared to McCain's 38 percent.

Muddying this Obama advantage, however, is that Democrats were more likely to report viewing the debate than were Republicans. The CNN/Opinion Research web site did not report the results for independents.

But the debate did not move the presidential preference numbers. Going back to the Gallup daily tracking poll and averaging, as is the standard practice, the most recent three days, the results for the first three days following the debate (Sept. 27-29) is 49 percent Obama, 43 percent Obama. That is essentially the same as the findings (Obama 49 percent, McCain 44 percent) for the three days (Sept. 24-26) preceding the debate.

Despite Friday's sound and fury in William Faulkner's beloved Oxford, Miss., the presidential vote needle did not move. That represents an opportunity missed for John McCain and a test survived for Barack Obama. On foreign policy, McCain's home turf, the Arizona senator failed to narrow the margin.

By holding his own -- and maybe a bit more -- Obama maintained his lead.

Terry Jones is a polling expert and professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. 

Terry Jones
Terry Jones is a polling expert and professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

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