Christopher Orr highlights some numbers from the insta-polls after last night's debate that are even more favorable to Obama than the overall "who won the debate" figures:
Those surveyed thought Obama was more intelligent than McCain by 57 - 25 and expressed himself more clearly by 60 - 30. Obama reversed a prior weakness as well, leading in the "stronger leader" category 54 - 43. McCain, for his part, prevailed in the categories you'd rather lose: "attacked more" (a whopping 63 - 17) and "more like a typical politician," which he took by 16 points.
But the real killer looks to be in the category that doomed the last two Democratic presidential nominees: likeability. Those polled by CNN found Obama more likeable by a devastating margin of 65 to 28 percent. I don't have comparable numbers from past races at my fingertips, but I think it's safe to say that no candidate who has been substantially less likeable on television than his opponent has won the presidency in over thirty years.
Reinforcing Orr's observation that who "won" the debate may be the least interesting question about it, Amy Sullivan reports from a focus group of undecided voters who watched the debate in Colorado:
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.
And really, when you think about it, why should the "winner" of the debate matter? Asking voters to judge it like a boxing match is absurd -- what matters is how it changed their views about the candidates. Asking them to pick a "winner" requires them to step away from their own experience and try to guess what other people might have thought, and that probably makes their answers less helpful (hence the almost one third who had no opinion on the question in several polls).
Finally, last night's debate definitely will matter. Nielsen found that it was watched by more people than the first debate but fewer than the VP debate.