CA120: In California, partisanship rules debate watchers

Donald Trump, left, stands with Hillary Clinton at the first presidential debate Monday at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. (Photo: AP/Evan Vucci)

How did Californians score the presidential debate?

Last night’s presidential debate may have been the most watched political event in U.S. history:  A projected 100 million Americans were poised to watch Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the same stage for the first time this election season. A later estimate put the audience at 84 million, still the largest ever for a debate.

And with polls tightening to a virtual tie, this single performance could be seen as the most important 90 minutes for each candidate thus far. They have two more encounters scheduled — on Oct. 9 in St. Louis and Oct. 19 in Las Vegas.

Two national polls gave Hillary Clinton a decisive win.

A CNN poll of debate watchers gave Clinton the win by better than a 2-to-1 margin, 62% to 27%.  However, that poll was skewed about 15-points more Democratic than the base national voter population.

A more balanced poll by Public Policy Polling scored the debate as a Clinton win by a narrower, 51-40 margin.

As a part of CA120’s ongoing polling work this election cycle, we conducted our own post-debate survey of 1,500 likely voters in California, and among those who watched all or a part of the debate, Clinton also scored a strong win. The survey was conducted online of voters randomly selected and emailed between 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. after the debate

Among respondents, 65% said Clinton won, 21% said Trump won and the remaining 14% called it a tie.

With Democratic leanings in California, this does not come as any great surprise.  However, a deeper look into the polling — with breakdowns of viewpoints by age, ethnicity, party and gender — gives us insight into the confrontation.ca120

Within the wide Clinton debate win numbers, we can see variations among key portions of the electorate.  The most striking is the partisan breakdown.

For Democrats, the Clinton performance was an affirming event – with 90% of registered Democrats saying that she won the debate.  Among Republicans, this was flipped, with 57% saying that Trump won.

If you had to characterize one candidate as having “won” the debate, who would you select?

Total Dem Rep OTHER Age 55+ Age < 35 MALE FEMALE
Hillary Clinton 65% 90% 21% 67% 64% 54% 56% 71%
Donald Trump 21% 3% 57% 17% 22% 26% 27% 16%
Tie 14% 7% 22% 16% 14% 20% 17% 13%

Independent voters appeared to side with Clinton, which again is not particularly surprising given how Independent voters in California lean Democratic by a 2-1 margin.

Within the gender breakdown, Republican women said Trump won the debate by a 54-to-19 percent margin, while Democratic men went with Clinton by an 89-to-8 percent margin.

This is further evidence that while gender is often considered a key tipping point in this contest, partisanship is actually a more important driver of how each candidate is perceived.

Using self-described ideology gives further illustration of how the debate performances were perceived by California voters.

If you had to characterize one candidate as having “won” the debate, who would you select?

Hillary Clinton Donald Trump Tie
Very conservative 23% 58% 19%
Conservative 25% 50% 26%
Moderate 64% 20% 16%
Liberal 91% 2% 6%
Very Liberal 89% 2% 9%

One of the longest-lasting theories about political debates is how much the appearance of the candidates matters.  This comes, in part, from the first televised political debate in 1960 where radio listeners believed Richard Nixon won, but those who watched it on television said that John Kennedy had won.

But lost in the decades of mythology surrounding the Kennedy-Nixon debate was this: Determining the winner or loser apparently did not depend as much on the medium as it did on the partisan makeup of the audience. The more conservative voters were more likely to be listening on the radio, while more liberal voters were watching it on TV.

We can see some of this differentiation from our survey by splitting the win numbers by the medium used by voters to watch the debate.

If you had to characterize one candidate as having “won” the debate, who would you select?

How Watched Hillary Clinton Donald Trump Tie
Online / Mobile or PC 59% 25% 15%
FOX 19% 56% 25%
CNN/MSNBC 82% 9% 9%
Networks – ABC/CBS/NBC 70% 15% 15%
Radio 65% 20% 15%

Additionally, information received during the debate appeared to have an impact on this perception of who won the debate – voters who checked Twitter during the debate gave Clinton a 78-to-15% margin, but those who checked other social media saw the debate as a much closer outcome, 45-to-38%.

Looking deeper at the debate performance, we asked voters who performed better in a variety of key measures seen as important goals for each campaign.

Regardless of who you feel won the debate, or who you are supporting, which candidate best fits the following descriptions based on their performance?

Clinton Trump
Appeared most presidential 76% 24%
Showed greatest command of issues 79% 21%
Exhibited best temperament 81% 19%
Outperformed expectations 70% 30%
Was most aggressive 25% 75%
Was most truthful 68% 32%
Was helped most by the moderator 74% 26%
Was entertaining 32% 68%
Was comfortable with the debate format 85% 15%
Help the American people achieve the American Dream 62% 38%

Among the total population, Clinton swept all but two categories – being aggressive and entertaining.  But, again, the ideological breakdown of voters showed strong differentiation, with Republican voters finding Trump winning nearly every category.

Regardless of who you feel won the debate, or who you are supporting, which candidate best fits the following descriptions based on their performance?

Republican Democrat Other
Clinton Trump Clinton Trump Clinton Trump
Appeared most presidential 29% 71% 97% 3% 78% 22%
Showed greatest command of issues 33% 67% 97% 3% 84% 16%
Exhibited best temperament 40% 60% 98% 2% 83% 17%
Outperformed expectations 28% 72% 93% 7% 69% 31%
Was most aggressive 35% 65% 20% 80% 25% 75%
Was most truthful 12% 88% 97% 3% 70% 30%
Was helped most by the moderator 94% 6% 49% 51% 74% 26%
Was entertaining 7% 93% 54% 46% 28% 72%
Was comfortable with the debate format 50% 50% 97% 3% 88% 12%
Help the American people achieve the American Dream 10% 90% 95% 5% 64% 36%

The two greatest distinctions in the performance were “best temperament” and “comfortable with the debate format,” each of which had over 80% selecting Clinton.

One area where there was agreement was in the “most aggressive” question, with Trump winning that decisively – and having the widest margin among Democrats with an 80-20 margin. He was also seen as “most entertaining” by both Republicans and independents, although Democrats were more evenly split on the question.

The moderator was also a point of partisan distinction, with 82% of Democrats saying that the debate was “fairly and competently moderated” compared to only 59% for Republicans.

However, given the concerns about how the debate would be moderated, this is likely a big victory for moderator Lester Holt, given that overall his performance was deemed fair by 71% of respondents and majorities of both candidate’s backers.  The only significant group who saw the moderator as being unfair, albeit by a small, 54-46 margin, was those who watched the debate on FOX.

Much more analysis of this debate will come in the days and weeks ahead, particularly as we see changes in the polling that might be attributed to the debate performances.

The next debate will be a much different format – a town hall with undecided voters.

We will look to repeat this same kind of survey following that and the final debate. This can help us both understand the California electorate’s response to each debate, and trends that might be developing in voter perspectives as we near Election Day.

This polling is also gathering information on voter views on ballot measures and other contests that will be a subject of future CA120 reporting.

Ed’s Note:  Updates and corrects partisan breakdown numbers in final table. Paul Mitchell, the creator of the CA120 column, is vice president of Political Data Inc., and owner of Redistricting Partners, a political strategy and research company. Alan Nigel Yan is an intern from UC Berkeley. 


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