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Election 2016
Clinton's Victory on the Larger Side for Modern Debates
Election 2016

Clinton's Victory on the Larger Side for Modern Debates

Chart: data points are described in article

Story Highlights

  • By 61% to 27%, more say Clinton than Trump did the better job
  • Long line of first-debate winners have failed to win the presidency
  • Clinton dominated in perceptions of understanding the issues

PRINCETON, N.J. -- By 61% to 27%, Americans who tuned in to Monday night's presidential debate believe Hillary Clinton, rather than Donald Trump, did the better job. Her 34-percentage-point lead is among the more robust victories presidential candidates have earned in Gallup's post-debate polls stretching back to 1960, on par with Bill Clinton's debate wins over Bob Dole in 1996. However, as the record shows, the winner of the first debate does not necessarily win the next debate, or the election.

Presidential Candidate Perceived as Performing Best in Debate
Among U.S. adults who watched or listened to each debate; shown is percentage-point lead over next-highest-rated opposing candidate
  First debate Second debate Third debate
2016 H. Clinton (+34) -- --
2012 Romney (+52) Obama (+13) Obama (+23)
2008 Obama (+12) Obama (+33) Obama (+26)
2004 Kerry (+32) Kerry (+15) Kerry (+14)
2000 Gore^ (+7) G.W. Bush^ (+13) Gore^ (+2)
1996 B. Clinton (+35) B. Clinton^ (+30) --
1992 Perot^ (+17) B. Clinton (+42) Perot^ (+9)
1988 Dukakis (+9) -- --
1984 Mondale^ (+19) Reagan^ (+3) --
1976 Ford (+7) -- --
1960 Kennedy (+21) -- --
^ Based on debate reaction poll conducted the same night with respondents interviewed in advance who planned to watch the debate and agreed to be called back

Most notably, Mitt Romney was the runaway leader in public perceptions of who performed better in the opening debate of 2012, with 72% of debate watchers choosing him versus just 20% naming Barack Obama -- the widest debate lead Gallup has ever recorded. Yet Obama eclipsed Romney in the next two debates and won the election. Equally striking is that John Kerry was the perceived winner of all three debates against George W. Bush in 2004, including by 32 points in the first debate, but lost the election.

In terms of other first debates, viewers thought Al Gore outperformed George W. Bush in 2000, and they believed Ross Perot bested both Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in 1992. Viewers also gave Michael Dukakis better marks than Bush in 1988. They thought Walter Mondale outperformed Ronald Reagan in 1984 and determined that Gerald Ford beat Jimmy Carter in 1976. But the credential carried none of these debate winners to presidential victory.

On the other hand, decisive first-debate showings by John F. Kennedy in 1960, Bill Clinton in 1996 and Obama in 2008 all foreshadowed positive outcomes for these candidates in the elections that followed.

Democrats Much Happier Than GOP With Candidate's Performance

Hillary Clinton's strong lead in public perceptions of who won Monday night's debate is explained by her much higher support from fellow Democrats (92% of whom said she did the better job) than Trump received from Republicans (53% thought he did the better job). Additionally, 59% of political independents thought Clinton prevailed, adding to her overall strong showing. Gallup conducted this poll Sept. 27-28 with 1,020 national adults, including 791 who said they watched or heard the debate.

Regardless of which candidate you happen to support, who do you think did the better job in [last/Monday] night's debate -- [Hillary Clinton (or) Donald Trump]?
Among U.S. adults who watched or listened to the debate
  Clinton Trump Neither (vol.) Both equally (vol.) No opinion
  % % % % %
All debate viewers 61 27 5 6 2
Democrats 92 3 2 2 2
Independents 59 30 5 4 2
Republicans 28 53 6 12 1
"vol." = volunteered response
Gallup, Sept. 27-28, 2016

Viewers of the first debate between Clinton and Trump, held Sept. 26 at Hofstra University in New York, also thought Clinton outshone Trump on each of four personal qualities that could be important to voters when casting their ballots in November, although by varying margins.

She did best against Trump, 62% to 26%, in perceptions of which candidate better demonstrated a good understanding of the issues -- but led by nearly as much, 59% to 27%, for appearing presidential.

Trump edged closer to Clinton in viewers' opinions of which candidate came across as more likable and inspiring, but he still trailed her by double digits on both qualities.

Viewers' Perceptions of Qualities Exhibited at First Debate
Thinking about the following characteristics and qualities, please say whether you think each one better described Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump during [last/Monday] night's debate.
  Clinton Trump Clinton advantage
  % % (pct. pts.)
Had a good understanding of the issues 62 26 +36
Appeared presidential 59 27 +32
Was more likable 55 36 +19
Was inspiring 46 34 +12
Gallup, Sept. 27-28, 2016

Bottom Line

Clinton's success over Trump in debate viewers' perceptions of who prevailed Monday night may support the maxim that "he who fails to prepare, prepares to fail." Her confidence in detailing one policy plan after another likely contributed to viewer perceptions that she had a good command of the issues and was more "presidential." And her 36- and 32-point leads, respectively, over Trump on these qualities mirror her 34-point lead in overall perceptions of who did the better job in the debate. The telltale sign that Trump came up short is that barely half of Republicans believe he won, compared with almost all Democrats believing Clinton won.

Debate performances do not always line up with election outcomes, and a poor showing in the initial debate doesn't mean a candidate can't come back and win the next one. Obama's recovery after losing badly in the first 2012 debate best illustrates this. George W. Bush even won the presidency in 2004 without winning any of that year's debates, although he at least improved his showing in the final two. Hillary Clinton's reportedly meticulous preparation won her the first round, and the stakes are now raised for Trump in rounds two and three.

Historical data are available in Gallup Analytics.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 27-28, 2016, on the Gallup Daily tracking survey, with a random sample of 1,020 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. For results based on the total sample of 791 adults who watched or listened to the debate, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 60% cellphone respondents and 40% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

Learn more about how Gallup Daily tracking works.

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