The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Reliable polls show that Biden won the debate — so those aren’t what Trump’s allies are highlighting

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and President Trump argued against each other in a tense debate on Sept. 29. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Shortly after the first presidential debate ended on Tuesday night, Fox News’s Sean Hannity seized upon two online surveys to declare victory for his friend President Trump.

One, from Telemundo, had Trump winning by a 2-to-1 margin, he said. Another, from WGN, had a similarly lopsided result.

“Early reviews, instant response, instant polls,” Hannity said. “I’m sure the, you know, the mainstream media will have corrupt polls, as they always do, but those are the two flash polls that we have already.”

The press secretary Trump formally employs made a similar argument on Twitter.

The thing about those surveys is that they are garbage. This isn’t meant as disparagement; it’s meant as an accurate reflection of the utility of a survey that consists of a media outlet such as C-SPAN asking people on Twitter whom they think won. A good rule of thumb for a poll is that if anyone can weigh in on it and can encourage other people to participate as well, it’s not going to yield a useful result. When Telemundo announced the results of its informal Twitter survey, it deliberately pointed out that the results weren’t scientific, slightly moderating the uselessness of sharing such information in the first place.

Hannity, of course, offered no such qualifier — instead disparaging mainstream media polls that he certainly knew would be less generous in their assessments of the results. (If you enjoy watching Hannity amplify uninformative results to make a political point while we wait for more accurate results to come in, you’re going to want to watch Fox News on election night.)

In short order, scientific polls from reputable outlets were released. While White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany decided to share the results of a CNN reporter asking an on-air focus group whom they planned to support, the network’s actual poll, conducted with SSRS, offered a much bleaker review of Trump’s performance.

Sixty percent of respondents in CNN’s real poll thought that former vice president Joe Biden won the debate. Only 28 percent thought that Trump did.

CNN had asked its respondents before the debate whom they expected to win. Biden had the advantage there, too, by 13 points. Tellingly, Trump was far less likely to have been declared the winner than respondents expected, across party groups. Nearly 9 in 10 Republicans expected Trump to win, for example, but only about two-thirds actually did. Fully a quarter of Republicans thought Biden won, as did 1 in 8 Trump supporters.

It’s worth noting that this was a particularly friendly group of respondents. The network’s David Chalian noted in CNN’s broadcast that the pool of those interviewed skewed more heavily Democratic. That’s probably one reason, coming into the debate, 6 in 10 had favorable views of Biden compared to 4 in 10 who said the same of Trump. After the debate, there wasn’t much change — some slight shifts that aren’t statistically significant.

A poll released by CBS News and conducted by YouGov had a narrower margin of victory for Biden, with 48 percent viewing him as the winner and 41 percent saying that Trump prevailed.

The pollsters also asked respondents, both before and after the debate, how they viewed the candidates on three qualities: physical and mental stamina, honesty or trustworthiness, and the extent to which the candidates seemed to care about voters like them. The debate did little to change people’s views of Trump or Biden on these measures, with Trump maintaining an advantage on stamina and Biden being viewed as more honest and caring.

This is obviously a less clear-cut result than the one CNN offers, but the implication is the same: In a moment in which Trump very much needed a victory to redirect the course of a race that he’s losing, it seems unlikely that he did. His allies can lift up random Twitter polls to argue that he won, but that will probably serve only to bolster the confidence of his existing base of support, not to actually convince undecided voters that he triumphed.

Particularly because, in that CBS-YouGov poll, respondents were more likely to say that their view of Biden improved than worsened — and to say the opposite of Trump.

Over time, as more polls come out evaluating the debate and the race, we’ll have a better sense for what Tuesday night meant. We nonetheless focus on this “who won” question because it seems concrete, a tick forward in the long contest between the candidates. But a debate in which Trump didn’t clearly advance relative to Biden is a loss for the president.

No matter what Hannity says Telemundo said.