They were laughing at him, not with him

THEY WERE LAUGHING AT HIM, NOT WITH HIM…. Time’s Amy Sullivan has a fascinating report on a focus group in Denver last night, hosted by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, which offers a helpful glimpse at how some voters perceived the final presidential debate.

In politics it is generally not considered a good sign when voters are laughing at you, not with you. And by the end of the third and last presidential debate, the undecided voters who had gathered in Denver for Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg’s focus group were “audibly snickering” at John McCain’s grimaces, eye-bulging, and repeated references to “Joe the Plumber.”

The group of 50 uncommitted voters should have at least been receptive to McCain — Republicans and Independents outnumbered Democrats in the group by almost 4 to 1, and they started the evening with much warmer responses to McCain than to his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama. But by the time it was all over, so few of them had declared their support for McCain that there weren’t enough for Greenberg to separate them into a post-debate focus group. Meanwhile, the Obama supporters had to assemble in two different rooms to keep their discussion groups manageable.

In a room in a swing state where Dems were heavily outnumbered, that’s not exactly what the McCain campaign was hoping for in the final debate of the season.

As for Obama, he continued to win over undecided voters on critical questions: Does he have what it takes to be president? A 38/50 split flipped to 56/34. Can voters trust him to make the right decisions? Obama rose from 30/50 to 48/40. Is he best equipped to handle the economic crisis? Voters split evenly between the two candidates at the start preferred Obama by 30 points by the end of the night.

Perhaps most significant was Obama’s success in reassuring voters that he understands who they are and what matters to them. He went from a 16-point to a 24-point advantage on “Is he on your side?” and made similar gains on the question of whether he would “bring the right kind of change,” from a 18 to 38-point advantage. And while the two candidates were even on the question of “who shares your values?” at the beginning of the debate, Obama held a 24-point lead by the end.

McCain entered the night badly in need of a big win. If this focus group is any indication, McCain instead suffered another big setback.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.