Quick polls of who won a political debate are necessarily imperfect indicators. They include only those who watched the debate rather than the broader electorate, and they precede the coming several days of spin wars and media narratives that will help shape voters’ understanding of what happened.
The poll, conducted by CNN and SSRS, found that 59 percent of debate watchers thought Harris won, and 38 percent thought Vice President Mike Pence won, an impressive margin of victory for Harris. (This poll is different from those simple web polls in which anyone can vote — it’s a methodologically sound albeit somewhat hasty poll in which respondents are contacted at random.)
CNN’s David Chalian pointed out on air that part of Harris’s margin is explained by the poll’s sample skewing more Democratic. But that’s not enough to explain all of Harris’s margin: 38 percent of respondents were Democrats, 29 percent were Republicans, and 33 percent were independents.
Results of the CNN instant poll: 59% say Harris won, 38% say Pence won. pic.twitter.com/aiy7Ee3Mx3— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) October 8, 2020
The poll also found that 63 percent of respondents said they thought Harris was qualified to be president, while 65 percent said they thought Pence is qualified. (This means many respondents who thought Pence lost the debate still thought he was qualified to be president.)
Chalian also pointed out that there was a massive gender gap in opinions of the debate. Per the poll, 69 percent of women who watched thought Harris won, and 30 percent thought Pence did. Among male viewers, it was a near tie — 48 percent thought Harris won, and 46 percent thought Pence did.
In comparison, a poll by CNN after the 2016 vice presidential debate found that Pence won: 48 percent of respondents that year gave the victory to Pence and 42 percent to Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA).
A vice presidential debate is unlikely to make much of a difference in the broader race — especially this year, with President Donald Trump continuing to dominate the news. But with Biden continuing to lead big in polls, Trump is running out of time to turn things around. Some Republicans hoped Pence could start that turnaround at the debate. According to this initial poll, at least, he has not.