Obama Won the Debate. Does Anybody Care?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 23 2012 6:59 PM

Obama Won the Debate. Does Anybody Care?

The Slate/Survey Monkey poll looks at the results of the third and final presidential debate.

President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney squared off in their third debate Monday night, and both camps are claiming they won the Battle of Boca. Obama’s campaign says the president won the debate; team Romney claims it’s winning the election. So today’s Slate/SurveyMonkey snap poll has a double purpose: to take the measure of each candidate’s performance in the final debate and to ponder, anxiously, its significance in the grand scheme of things. As usual, we posted our questions immediately after the debate and left them up until 9 a.m. ET Tuesday. (Information on respondents is available here. More information about SurveyMonkey Audience is here.)

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

First, a simple question: Who won the debate? Our results reflect a pretty clear victory for Barack Obama, who grabbed 55.4 percent of the vote to Mitt Romney’s 24.1 percent. more than percent declared the dust-up a tie and just less than 10 percent were (our least favorite word) undecided

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The president was in combative “Long Island” rather than faltering “Denver” mode last night, spicing his remarks with a sarcasm that was either gratifying or unseemly, depending on your political leaning. Many welcomed the attacks. The largest group of survey takers, 38.3 percent, described Obama as “very effective,” while 28 percent deemed him “somewhat effective,” and 18.3 percent pronounced him “extremely effective.” A combined 15.3 percent shaded more negative, ranking the president either “slightly” or “not at all” effective. 

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A more restrained Romney evoked comparably restrained responses. Just over 24 percent of survey takers called him “somewhat effective,” followed by 22.9 percent who found him “slightly effective.” An equal amount of people—20.8 percent—characterized the former governor as “very effective” and “not at all effective.” Only 11.3 percent considered Romney’s mild-mannered performance “extremely effective.” 

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Despite his lower scores, Romney did not appear to surprise viewers. When we asked whether he acquitted himself better, worse, or the same as they predicted, a majority—50.4 percent—answered simply that he met their expectations. Obama’s results were much rosier. Though the largest plurality, 38.5 percent were not particularly bowled over by Obama’s performance, a combined 50.9 percent reported he exceeded their prognostications.

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But how did each candidate’s performance play among the Americans who really count: undecided voters? Not surprisingly, this not-entirely-mythical population withheld its verdict as to who won the final debate. A strong majority, 65.5 percent, said they didn’t know whether Romney or Obama had prevailed. Meanwhile, 14.5 percent opted for the president and a virtually indistinguishable 12.7 percent chose his opponent. Thanks for the additional clarity, guys.

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Yet the Boca showdown may have swayed more undecided Americans than any of the previous presidential bouts. In terms of getting bodies to the polling booth, Obama has the slightest lead over Romney: Nearly 11 percent of unspoken-for voters report that the third debate persuaded them to cast a ballot for the incumbent. Just more than 9 percent say the same for the governor. 

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Our last question attempted to look back on the debates as a whole and to assess their impact on each candidate’s campaign. “Who do you think won the debates overall?” we asked. Barack Obama pulled into the lead with 48.1 percent of the vote, Romney trailed with 34.1 percent, and a remaining 17.8 percent either couldn’t make up their minds or called the whole affair a draw. But again, filtering for undecided viewers all but erased this Democratic advantage. A clear majority of 54.5 percent admitted that they hadn’t chosen a victor from the three debates. And near-equal numbers of those who did name a particular candidate opted for Romney (18.2 percent) and Obama (20 percent). 

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Ending our Slate/SurveyMonkey write-ups with murmuring about how we’re not really sure what’s going to happen in November is a cliché by now. But, for the record, we’re not sure what’s going to happen in November.