They Liked Him, They Really Liked Him

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From TIME’s Amy Sullivan:

As he did for the first presidential debate, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg gathered a group of undecided voters in a swing state (this time Colorado) to watch the town hall, polling them before and after to gauge how their reactions to the presidential candidates changed. The audience of 50 voters was slightly more female (58%), mostly middle-aged, dominated by former Bush voters, and split evenly along partisan lines.

Greenberg took a moment to brag that the polls following the first debate tracked with the reactions of his focus group, noting again that while such settings obviously involve a very small sample of voters in unusually intense viewing conditions, they do tend to accurately capture the overall reaction of normal viewers. If that’s the case this time as well, John McCain may not be toast, but he’s certainly approaching English muffin territory.

The voters awarded Obama the “win” (38% to 30%, with the rest choosing no clear winner). But that result was actually the least useful of the evening. Because while the earlier debate did not result in any net change in support for the two candidates, Obama walked away with a clear lead in new voters tonight. After the debate ended, 26% of the audience had become McCain supporters while 42% said they planned to vote for Obama. Only a quarter of the group was still undecided.

Even more dramatic was the shift in the voters’ personal reactions to the two candidates. Before the debate, McCain had a 48/46 favorability rating; that improved to 56/36 by the end. But that’s about where Obama started the evening—54/36. After an hour and a half, Obama’s favorability numbers were 80/14. As Joe Biden would say, let me repeat that: 80% of the undecided voters had favorable views of Obama and only 14% saw him negatively for a net rating of +66. Not even Bill Clinton got such a warm response in town hall formats.

Obama also improved his standing on several key attributes. Only 38% of voters thought he “has what it takes to be president” before the debate but by the end he had convinced more than half the room (56%). One of McCain’s goals for the evening was to convince viewers that Obama was a liberal who would raise their taxes and hike spending, but the number of voters who thought Obama was “too liberal” actually decreased throughout the evening. That could be because Obama used tougher foreign policy rhetoric than Americans are used to hearing from Democratic nominees. But he also got an assist from McCain, whose efforts to make him seem risky instead often position him as more hawkish than McCain. If viewers come away from the debate thinking Obama will do more to go after bin Laden and al Qaeda than McCain would, that’s probably a plus for Democrats. And it makes it harder for the “liberal” charge to stick.

As for McCain, the debate didn’t seem to change voters’ perceptions, for good or for bad. He did build on his reputation as a “maverick,” with the percentage of voters describing him that way rising from 30 to 42%. And his efforts to separate himself from Bush met with modest success—on the question of whether McCain “offers a different path from Bush,” he improved from 36 to 40%. In those areas where McCain did make gains—such as the question of which candidate could better deal with healthcare—he started from a significant disadvantage, improving from -50 to -38. In addition, while the audience like McCain’s use of phrases like “America can do great things” or when he described the U.S. as a country of “winners and innovators,” their response dials were mostly flat during the issue exchanges.

Interestingly, Obama benefitted from his handling of both domestic and foreign policy issues. The response dials went up to 80 when he talked about his mother’s dying battles with insurance companies and his belief that health care is a right. (Greenberg says he’s never seen the dials go that high, and indeed, on CNN’s dial group, it appeared that they had lost women throughout that answer because their dials were maxed-out.) But Obama also impressed viewers with his responses to questions about Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which generated high dial scores. And he nearly eliminated McCain’s advantage as the candidate best seen as able to handle Iraq, closing the gap from -12 to -4.

Presidential elections are certainly not popularity contests. But favorable attitudes about a candidate like Obama do seem to allow him to lodge attacks without generating negative reactions from viewers. When Obama went after McCain—whether on taxes or charging that the Republican’s rhetoric has been too bellicose—the dials stayed up. But when McCain made a snide comment—referring to Obama as “that one” or asking “I didn’t hear the fine, did you?”—the dials invariably dipped, with independents particularly expressing disapproval.

Overall, McCain’s goals for the evening were to make Obama seem like a risky—perhaps even unpatriotic—figure, to paint him as a liberal extremist, and to pin him down on taxes. From the reactions of these undecided Denver voters, none of those efforts worked. Greenberg’s assessment of the evening is a partisan one, but a plausible explanation for the lop-sided response. “McCain is just not wearing well with intense exposure,” he says. “But Obama wears very well.”