How to read debate performance polls

IJReview partnered with Google last night to do an overnight poll on the Republican debate, specifically asking respondents who they think won.

And the result was clear: Carly Fiorina performed far and away better than the rest of the field, with just over 30% of respondents indicating that she won the night. As I wrote earlier today, much of that had to do with her rousing (and false) claims about Planned Parenthood and the military, and the rest had to do with her mic-dropping response to Donald Trump’s previous insult about her face.

Here’s the full list:

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You’ll notice that Donald Trump and Ben Carson are the next two candidates trailing Fiorina, with Marco Rubio coming in fourth. Having watched the debate, this doesn’t seem to make very much sense. While Trump had no trouble getting his digs in at Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, Fiorina made him look positively silly — on both her looks and his business record. And unlike being positively out of his depth on foreign policy, coming off as the shady, not-so-successful businessman that he is should actually do some damage to him as a candidate. Carson, for his part, didn’t take any hits or say anything that would cause him to lose support during the debate, but that’s because he didn’t say much of anything. So again, one wouldn’t expect him to come in third in a poll asking who “won” one particular night of the campaign.

Carly Fiorina, screenshot via Des Moines Register

Carly Fiorina, screenshot via Des Moines Register

Which all speaks to the fact that post-debate polls are, for the most part, useless. Unless one candidate is head and shoulders above the rest — in this case Fiorina — voters evaluate candidate performance in debates in reference to who they’re already supporting. Donald Trump and Ben Carson most likely finished near the top of this poll because they started at the top, not because they performed especially well.

A much more useful way to ask this question is to identify your sample of respondents before the debate, ask them who they’re voting for, and then ask them afterward if they changed their vote — and if so, to whom. It takes a little more effort to pull off, but at the end of the day, that’s the question you’re trying to answer in the first place.

And especially during a primary campaign, you’re likely to get some interesting responses. In a general election debate, where most viewers who tune in already know who they’re voting for, the candidate preferences of the viewers coming out of the debate are going to look an awful lot like the ones going in. But vote choice in primary elections is far more fluid, and while it’s moderately interesting to say that Carly Fiorina the best “performance” at last night’s debate, it would be far more interesting to know if anyone is voting for her today that wasn’t yesterday.

Since that’s how you, you know, “win” an election.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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11 Responses to “How to read debate performance polls”

  1. Don Chandler says:

    But it’s the only circus in town!

  2. 2karmanot says:

    Fiorina is perfect for the GOP. Seldom have I seen a politician so full of darkness, spite and self importance. Come to think of it—not so seldom, but Mz Carli is bad news in every catory. The one thing she does excel in is bold face lying and is quite accomplished in that skill.

  3. Demosthenes says:

    Ms. Fiorina is the flavor of the day, and that is it. She serves a useful purpose, as does Dr. Carson. There is zero chance either of them will be the GOP nominee.

  4. The_Fixer says:

    I did not watch the shit-show last night; had to work and even if I hadn’t worked, it would not have been appointment viewing. The criteria I use to select TV programming does not include the effectiveness in its ability to make me wretch.

    I think it would not take much for Carly Fiorina to look better than Trump. She’s not bombastic, does not have facial expressions you’d expect to see out of a 5 year-old, and has a more palatable demeanor and manner of speaking. His ridiculous statement about Fiorina’s looks was bound to catch up with him . I believe more of what he said will catch up with him in the coming weeks. Donald’s gonna need some iodine for the ass-bites coming his way.

    I was interested to know what Scott Walker would wind up saying and doing. I want to know if there’s any danger of him screwing up the whole country rather than just Wisconsin. Sounds like he did not do much, which is the least damage he could do to his campaign. But it gets him no “wingnut points”, the key to winning the nomination in the Republican Party.

    I am sure that I will not watch future debates, just wait until the following day for reports on how the circus event was. I suspect they may be marginally more substantive when the field is narrowed a bit, but there’s still gonna be a lot more crazy talk coming from this group. You can bet on that.

  5. Nicholas A Kocal says:

    You will always do well as a republican as long as you do not wet your pants.

  6. Bill_Perdue says:

    Kasich is a union busting scab. There’s nothing reasonable about him, or Cuomo, or Brown, or Obama, or Walker.

  7. BeccaM says:

    True that… but the rest of the GOPers are about a hundred steps to the right of Reagan’s zombie corpse.

  8. Naja pallida says:

    It’s kind of a testament to how ridiculous things have become that Kasich is discussed as the “reasonable” one. His moderation stems only from the fact that he’s not willing to burn every bridge he comes across. He’s still ten steps to the right of Ronald Reagan.

  9. kladinvt says:

    I’m kind of surprised that Kasich didn’t poll higher, but then again, the republiCON base loathes reasonable candidates. Bring on the pitchforks and torches!

  10. nicho says:

    So, basically, they’re measuring which participant in the asylum therapy group is the least crazy.

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