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Why Voters Thought Obama Won

TPM has the internals of the CNN poll of debate-watchers, which had Obama winning overall by a margin of 51-38. The poll suggests that Obama is opening up a gap on connectedness, while closing a gap on readiness.

Specifically, by a 62-32 margin, voters thought that Obama was “more in touch with the needs and problems of people like you”. This is a gap that has no doubt grown because of the financial crisis of recent days. But it also grew because Obama was actually speaking to middle class voters. Per the transcript, McCain never once mentioned the phrase “middle class” (Obama did so three times). And Obama’s eye contact was directly with the camera, i.e. the voters at home. McCain seemed to be speaking literally to the people in the room in Mississippi, but figuratively to the punditry. It is no surprise that a small majority of pundits seemed to have thought that McCain won, even when the polls indicated otherwise; the pundits were his target audience.

Something as simple as Obama mentioning that he’ll cut taxes for “95 percent of working families” is worth, I would guess, a point or so in the national polls. Obama had not been speaking enough about his middle class tax cut; there was some untapped potential there, and Obama may have gotten the message to sink in tonight

By contrast, I don’t think McCain’s pressing Obama on earmarks was time well spent for him. One, it simply is not something that voters care all that much about, given the other pressures the economy faces. But also, it is not something that voters particularly associate with Obama, as the McCain campaign had not really pressed this line of attack. If you’re going to introduce a new line of attack late in a campaign, it has better be a more effective one that earmarks. And then there was McCain’s technocratic line about the virtues of lowering corporate taxes, one which might represent perfectly valid economic policy, but which was exactly the sort of patrician argument that lost George H.W. Bush the election in 1992.

Meanwhile, voters thought that Obama “seemed to be the stronger leader” by a 49-43 margin, reversing a traditional area of McCain strength. And voters thought that the candidates were equally likely to be able to handle the job of president if elected.

These internals are worse for McCain than the topline results, because they suggest not only that McCain missed one of his few remaining opportunities to close the gap with Barack Obama, but also that he has few places to go. The only category in which McCain rated significantly higher than Obama was on “spent more time attacking his opponent”. McCain won that one by 37 points.

My other annoyance with the punditry is that they seem to weight all segments of the debate equally. There were eight segments in this debate: bailout, economy, spending, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, terrorism. The pundit consensus seems to be that Obama won the segments on the bailout, the economy, and Iraq, drew the segment on Afghanistan, and lost the other four. So, McCain wins 4-3, right? Except that, voters don’t weight these issues anywhere near evenly. In Peter Hart’s recent poll for NBC, 43 percent of voters listed the economy or the financial crisis as their top priority, 12 percent Iraq, and 13 percent terrorism or other foreign policy issues. What happens if we give Obama two out of three economic voters (corresponding to the fact that he won two out of the three segments on the economy), and the Iraq voters, but give McCain all the “other foreign policy” voters?

Issue        Priority      Obama     McCain
Economy 43 --> 29 14
Iraq 12 --> 12 0
Foreign Policy 13 --> 0 13
Total 41 27

By this measure, Obama “won” by 14 points, which almost exactly his margin in the CNN poll.

McCain’s essential problem is that his fundamental strength – his experience — is specifically not viewed by voters as carrying over to the economy. And the economy is pretty much all that voters care about these days.

EDIT: The CBS poll of undecideds has more confirmatory detail. Obama went from a +18 on “understanding your needs and problems” before the debate to a +56 (!) afterward. And he went from a -9 on “prepared to be president” to a +21.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.