Some readers -- and not just the usual liberal gadflies -- think my Friday "Bush Won" column was nuts. To review: As I wrote before the debate, if the match-up either shifted the dynamics of the race in the President's favor or left them unchanged, it would be good for Bush, whereas Kerry needed a significant move in his favor. After the debate, which Kerry certainly "won" on points, I saw little reason to think the electorate would be moved very much. I predicted that the Senator "might get a small bounce in the polls, but probably not enough to fundamentally change the trajectory of the race," and by default declared Bush the winner.
Guess what? There's ample reason to believe that I was right:
• When ABC took an instant viewer poll last week, their sample supported George W. Bush vs. John Kerry, 50% to 46% before last Thursday's debate. After the debate, the same interviewees supported the President 51% to 47% -- no net change.
• In Rasmussen's daily tracking poll, 6 percent of respondents said Friday that the debate changed their minds: 3 percent who moved into Kerry's corner, 2 percent who moved into Bush's, and 1 percent who moved into the Undecided column -- a paltry movement in Kerry's favor.
• The L.A. Times poll showed that among survey participants who watched the debate, who already favored Kerry by 1 point last week (when the total sample of registered voters in general favored Bush by 4 points), his lead increased to 3 points.
• In a survey done in conjunction with Knowledge Networks by Democracy Corps, a Democratic firm, in a demographically-balanced sample polled over the Internet, Kerry garnered a 2-percent gain in support during the debate. (Incidentally, partisan polling firms -- this one is run by James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, and, when he's not on leave playing guru to a campaign, Bob Shrum -- have a statistically-proven bias toward the home team in the data they release publicly.)
Against all this stands the Newsweek poll, showing Kerry leading 49-46, a net 7-point swing from September 9/10, when the magazine showed Bush leading 50-46. But just as Newsweek oversampled Republicans after the New York convention and overstated Bush's bounce, here they seem to have oversampled Democrats and overstated Kerry's. For the first night of the poll, conducted after the debate, most of the Midwest and all of the South were excluded from the sample -- it was too late to call people in the Central and Eastern time zones. Mark Blumenthal, Mickey Kaus's longtime "Mystery Pollster" whose young blog has quickly become an invaluable psephological resource, writes that the Friday and Saturday portion of the sample might also be suspect because "weekend-only interviewing yields respondents that are more aware of current events and political figures even after demographic weighting." Newsweek's trendline toward the president swung from a 39% Republican/34% Democratic sample on September 9/10 to a 34% Republican/36% Democratic sample after the debate. Voters' party ID does change (John Zogby is almost alone among pollsters in using a method of weighting that assumes that it doesn't), but probably not this much.
The USAToday/CNN/Gallup poll shows, among likely voters, a 49-49 dead heat, compared to an 8-point lead for Bush before the debate. Blumenthal's point about the tendencies of weekend polls may also apply to Gallup (the party breakdown of the sample is not yet public as I write). But since this is also the first poll to include a sample taken on Sunday, it might also be registering Kerry's tremendous win in the weekend spin war, something that was hard to predict; both sides came out of the match with plenty of ammunition. But Saturday Night Live, where the debate skits were dismayingly influential in 2000, was harder on Bush than Kerry, and our esteemed press corps has reached a clear consensus that Kerry scored huge and has the wind at his back. Will this storyline persist in their coverage? It's impossible to tell; with a vice-presidential debate tomorrow, a town-hall presidential debate on Friday, and a potential mini-scandal brewing over whether Kerry is a big fat cheater, we're in for a week full of surprises.
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