From TIME’s Amy Sullivan:
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg ran a dial-group with 45 undecided voters in St. Louis during the debate, polling them before and after to judge how the event changed their reactions to Obama and McCain. The group was mostly middle-aged, split evenly among education and class lines, and was heavily comprised of Bush 2004 voters.
First things first, the group thought Obama “won” the debate (38 to 27%, with 36% saying that neither candidate walked away with a clear win). But that judgment didn’t necessarily mean the Democrat won more support from the voters. At the beginning, they were all undecided; after the debate, half still weren’t sure who’d they vote for and the remainder split evenly between the two candidates.
The biggest shifts of the evening came on perceptions of personal attributes and on the issue of national security. Although the first half of the debate focused on economic questions and those concerns generally rank at the top of voter concerns, these St. Louis voters didn’t really hear anything that moved them. They responded positively to McCain’s emphasis on reducing spending and they didn’t respond negatively to anything Obama said about the economy. But at the end of the day, there was no shift in answer to the question of which candidate they trusted to handle the economy.
Both candidates saw their net favorability ratings rise over the course of the evening. McCain started off with a 22-point net and gained 9 points. But Obama went from a 6-point net favorability to plus-45, a shift of 39 points that placed him higher than McCain at the end of the debate (69% versus 62%).
McCain was seen as the more negative of the two—by 7 points before the debate and by 26 points after. The audience did not like it when he went after Obama for being “naïve” or used his oft-repeated “what Senator Obama doesn’t understand” line. When the two clashed directly in the second half of the debate, with Obama repeatedly protesting McCain’s characterization of his statements or positions, the voter dials went down. Voters appear to have judged McCain too negative in those encounters and Obama more favorably.
McCain maintained his advantage of the questions of who voters trust on Iraq and who is seen as a strong leader. There was a shift in the judgment of whether Obama “has what it takes to be president,” from 41% agreeing before the debate to 52% afterward. And Obama gained 11 points as the candidate who is seen as “being on your side.”
Since this was the official foreign policy debate of the campaign cycle, it is perhaps most significant that Obama managed to chip away at McCain’s advantage as the candidate voters trusted to handle national security questions. At the outset, McCain held a whopping 63-point lead on that issue; by the of the evening that had dropped to a 44-point advantage. That’s obviously still a huge liability for Obama. But some of his biggest dial-meters of the night came during his remarks about Russia (particularly his work with Dick Lugar on loose nukes) and on his argument that Iraq has distracted the administration from the situation in Afghanistan.
Finally, Obama’s comments on achieving energy independence were well-received and he improved his advantage on that issue from 20 points to 44 points throughout the evening.
As Greenberg noted while running through the results, dial group responses are often a bit exaggerated compared to the way ordinary viewers react to debates. But the direction of the responses is almost always consistent with the way polls and general opinion moves in the days following a debate.