5 charts that set the scene for the second presidential debate

October 16, 2012

The second presidential debate doesn't start until 9 pm eastern tonight. So, how will you kill the hours between now and then?

Well, here's how we did it: We scoured some of our favorite polling and data visualization sites to find a few charts and graphs that gave some context for the political landscape on which the debate will play out tonight.

Our favorites are below.

1.  One side benefit of President Obama's poor showing in the first presidential debate 13 days ago is that he has effectively lowered expectations for himself in this debate. (And, no, we don't buy the conspiracy theory that he purposely dogged it so as to lower the bar for himself in the next two debates.)  One interesting note in the Pew numbers below; 42 percent of independents now expect Romney to do better tonight as compared to 31 percent who expect Obama to win.

2. Opinions about President Obama and Mitt Romney -- at least among registered voters -- are locked in. The favorable numbers for Obama and Romney have not moved in any statistically significant way since this spring, according to Gallup data. Given that consistency, it's hard to see tonight's debate doing much to impact how people feel about the two men personally.

3. Don't underestimate the power of the after-action analysis -- and particularly how the comedy sketch show "Saturday Night Live" handles the debate -- to shape perception. Some version of "SNL" made it into the top four related search terms for both Romney and Obama. Also, Big Bird.

4. Speaking of how people consume the debate, we were struck by this Pew pie chart -- second only to this pie chart in terms of insight -- about how people followed the first presidential debate.  Of the 56 percent of people who watched the debate live, the vast majority (85 percent) watched it on television exclusively but more than one in ten (11 percent) said they watched it on TV while also following the coverage on their computer or a mobile device.  One in ten isn't a gargantuan number but it does suggest that there is a segment of people who are having their opinions shaped in real time by the in-the-moment commentary on places like Twitter.

5.  To be honest, we're not entirely sure what this chart tells us -- other than that the people of New Hampshire, Vermont and Virginia are more interested in the race (or at least more interested in searching on the two candidates) than the rest of the country.  And might it be a good thing for President Obama that Ohioans are seaching for his name more than any other state? Sure. Or it could mean nothing.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Aaron Blake · October 16, 2012