President Obama and Mitt Romney squared off last night for the first presidential debate, and at times it didn’t seem like a fair fight. An energetic, vibrant Romney tossed darts at a halting, somewhat passive Obama, hammering him on Medicare, the economy, and more. The Slate/SurveyMonkey political survey returns to plumb viewers’ responses to the showdown: We posted our poll immediately after the debates aired, and collected snap judgments from voters across the country until 9 a.m. Eastern this morning. (Information on respondents is available here. More information about SurveyMonkey Audience is here.) Read on to assess the damage done to Obama and to marvel (or weep?) at Romney’s unexpected triumph.
The first question on everyone’s lips when a debate ends is “Who won?” That wasn’t a close call Wednesday night. According to the Slate/SurveyMonkey poll, 48.1 percent of survey takers handed the honors to Romney, while only 18.8 percent believed Obama had prevailed. That’s just under the 20 percent who couldn’t make up their minds and slightly more than the 13.1 percent who described the debate outcome as a “tie.”
There is no doubt that the former Massachusetts governor was on top of his game, but Romney probably also benefited from the public’s general pessimism about his debate prospects. When we asked “Did Mitt Romney perform better or worse in the debate than you expected?,” almost 70 percent of survey takers reported that he did better. Just under one-fourth said he fulfilled their prognostications. Only 5.9 percent said he did worse than they thought he would. (They clearly had never met Mitt Romney.)
But what exactly did “performing better” look like? To 27.7 percent of respondents, it meant that Romney seemed “very effective” at the lectern or even, to 25.2 percent, “extremely effective.” The next largest slice, 24.2 percent, found him to be “moderately effective,” and a skeptical minority, 22.9 percent, described him as either “slightly effective” or “not at all effective.”
On the other hand, viewers were disappointed in a showing from Obama that our own John Dickerson termed “listless and detached,” and that the New York Times called “flat, uninspired and defensive.” When we asked “Did Barack Obama perform better or worse in the debate than you expected,” 36 percent of survey takers answered with an apathetic “neither better nor worse.” Forty-five percent felt that the president failed to meet their expectations and a meager 15.6 percent were surprised by how well he acquitted himself. This translated into discouraging ratings when it came to Obama’s effectiveness against Romney. Quizzed about his powers of persuasion, 41.7 percent designated the POTUS “somewhat effective,” 21.7 percent opted for “slightly effective,” and 12.3 percent said “not at all effective.” Not exactly sterling numbers for an orator who has been compared to Abraham Lincoln.
When we filtered our results so that they only took undecided voters into account, however, the picture changed. More than one-half of the respondents still on the fence could not pick a clear winner in last night’s debate. (These are very indecisive people.) But they did take notice of Romney—almost a quarter said he bested Obama. Still, only 5.3 percent reported that the Mitt’s performance would compel them to vote for him in November. (By the same token, a mere 2.1 percent said that President Obama had persuaded them to punch the bubble next to his name on the ballot.) So while it’s clear Romney came out on top in Colorado Wednesday night, he will need to build on this moment if it’s truly to become a game-changer.