What's at Stake in a Presidential Debate?

Post-Debate Polls

The post-debate polls we've been describing are full-population surveys that capture the state of the overall race. We'll have one of those soon enough. First, though, we will have an immediate debate-reaction poll tonight.

This is a different kind of animal. Debate-reaction polls do not measure the race overall, among all registered or likely voters. They're done only among registered voters who watched the debate. This group does not necessarily look like the broader voting public; in 2000, for instance, Republicans tuned in disproportionately.

If the horse race among debate watchers does not look like recent likely voter horse races, do not be surprised.

Debate-watcher polls are "panel" surveys. In the ABC News/Washington Post poll we reported Monday, we asked people if they'd be watching the debate, and if yes, whether we could call back after and ask what they thought. That is what we'll be doing tonight: Around 125 interviewers jumping on the phones, calling back debate watchers from our random national sample, and asking three questions: Did you watch, who won, whom do you support? In 20 or 25 minutes, we should have the results.

One caution: Different debate-reaction polls can get different answers, because they ask different questions. Our ABC News poll asks: "Who, in your opinion, won the debate?" The answer can be Kerry, Bush, or "tie."

Others go at it differently. Some ask, "Who do you think did the better job — (this guy) or (that guy)?" Doing the better job is different from winning, and naming the guys steers people away from calling it a tie. Others ask who did the better job, but without naming the participants. Still others might not allow "tie" as an option at all. All polls should be evaluated on the basis of what they asked.

Lastly, someone somewhere is sure to run an Internet click-in "poll." Run screaming.

In 2000, both CNN and our very own ABCNews.com ran online click-ins on the debate. Earlier that day Jim Nicholson, then-chairman of the Republican National Committee, sent around a mass e-mail telling his people to go to CNN.com and ABCNews.com, "log on tonight: Vote after the debate and make your voice heard!"

Voilà: The ABCNews.com click-in had Bush winning the debate, 58 percent to 41 percent. Our actual poll had it 42 percent to 39 percent, Gore-Bush.

More ABC News polls can be found in the ABC News Poll Vault.

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