John Kerry won the first debate and with it a shot at reinvigorating his campaign for the presidency, an ABC News poll found. But in the first blush, vote preferences among viewers were unmoved.
Among a random sample of 531 registered voters who watched the debate, 45 percent called Kerry the winner, 36 percent said it was President Bush and 17 percent called it a tie. It was a clean win for Kerry: Independents by a 20-point margin said he prevailed.
Moreover, while 70 percent of Bush's supporters said Bush was the winner, considerably more Kerry supporters — 89 percent — said their man won.
As is customary, the debate did not immediately change many minds. Bush's support was 50 percent among viewers before the debate, and 51 percent after it; Kerry's, 46 percent before, 47 percent after. Ralph Nader had 1 percent before and a tad less than that after.
This kind of outcome is typical in presidential debates, which tend to reinforce viewers' preferences rather than change them. But the debates — an essential window on the candidates' styles as well as their substance — can affect the race more subtly as voters move toward their final judgments.
The results of this survey are not among all registered or likely voters; instead they are among registered voters who watched the debate Thursday night. They are, however, similar to the race overall, 51 percent to 45 percent among likely voters in an ABC News/Washington Post poll earlier this week.
Political party allegiance of debate viewers also was quite similar to its division among all likely voters nationally in the last ABC/Post poll. Among debate viewers, 35 percent identified themselves as Democrats, 35 percent as Republicans and 24 percent as independents. That compares with a 36 percent-35 percent-23 percent division among all likely voters in the ABC/Post survey.
Partisanship drove views of who won, but again the advantage was to Kerry. Sixty-nine percent of Republicans said Bush won, but 81 percent of Democrats said Kerry won. And among independents, as noted, 48 percent said Kerry won, while 28 percent picked Bush.
While there's a gender gap in presidential preference, pluralities of men and women alike said Kerry won the debate. Women picked him over Bush as the winner 46 percent to 39 percent; men picked Kerry by 43 percent to 34 percent. Men were more apt, though, to call it a tie.
Kerry also was called a winner disproportionately by people in two groups — older (age 65+) and younger (18-29) registered voters — collectively, 49 percent of them called Kerry the winner, 34 percent Bush. (But very few 18- to 29-year-olds watched; they tend to be less interested in politics). Among middle-aged voters it was a closer 42 percent to 38 percent split.
Debate viewers in the East and West, the two regions where Kerry's done better in vote preference, also were somewhat more likely to call him the winner. Views on who won were more evenly divided in the South and Midwest.
This survey was conducted by telephone Thursday night among a random-sample panel of 531 registered voters who watched the presidential debate. Respondents were initially interviewed Sept. 23-29. The results have a 4.5-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation were done by TNS of Horsham, Pa.
See previous analyses in our Poll Vault.