About All Those “Who Won the Debate” Surveys

HufPost Pollster has a very informative article out today reviewing the various public opinion surveys immediately following Tuesday night’s CNN Democratic presidential debate. You may have heard a lot of stuff Tuesday night about focus groups and snap polls calling Sanders the winner, somewhat at odds with the rapidly developing pundit assessment that HRC conquered all. Turns out both impressions of the reaction were accurate, with some qualifications.

The HuffPost piece links to a Andrew Prokop item at Vox documenting the Sanders triumph in many insta-reactions:

Big majorities of post-debate focus groups conducted by CNN, Fox News, and Fusion all judged Bernie Sanders to be the winner. Now, focus groups are hardly scientific — the Fox News one after the first GOP debate thought Donald Trump had collapsed, yet he actually went up in the polls afterward. Still, it’s interesting that all three came to the same conclusion….

Sanders won the most new Facebook followers, according to data from Crowdtangle. He added more than 35,000, increasing his following by 2 percent, to 1.69 million. Clinton added about 18,000, increasing her following by 1 percent, to 1.54 million.

Sanders also dominated in Google search traffic of the candidates who were onstage. Political scientist John Sides wisely cautions that we have no idea why people were searching for Sanders, and what they might have thought of the results. Still, one of the biggest challenges for a non-frontrunner is to capture the interest of the public — and Sanders clearly did that.

Sanders also dominated online “snap polls,” according to an assessment at Slate.

But aside from pundit reaction, the more scientific surveys deployed the next day started showing a very different picture: A HuffPost/YouGov poll of Democrats who watched the debate deemed HRC the winner by a 55/22 margin. An NBC/Survey Monkey poll found similar results. And even if you don’t assign party elites the sort of central role in the nominating process many political scientists regularly give them, they do matter, and thus, so, too, does Politico‘s survey of big Democratic boppers in Iowa and NH, who rated Clinton the “runaway winner.”

Now you can spin this stuff every which way: maybe the day-after surveys were inappropriately influenced by pro-HRC talking heads on the TV networks, or maybe hyper-enthusaistic Bernie fans artificially dominated focus groups and snap polls. My own assessment was that both candidates did well with perhaps a strategic advantage to Clinton for escaping what had become a media death watch and also for a more general-election-friendly tone. But we should understand that perceptions of what we see with our own eyes are often fluid.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.