At 9p.m. last Thursday, while over 15 million American households were tuned in to “Grey’s Anatomy” on ABC, 1.7 million were watching the first Republican primary debate on the cable news channel MSNBC. Yet despite these paltry viewing figures (only 2.2m tuned in to the Democratic debate the previous week), the media twitter means that these political beauty-parades have surprisingly big effects on the polls.
The latest “Survey USA” poll of likely voters in key early voting state New Hampshire has former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney at the head of the Republican pack for the first time (with 32%), beating both Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. This is quite a turnaround for the relatively unknown Mormon – just four weeks ago, despite having raised $24m (more than any other Republican), he was trailing by around 4%.
This has little to do with the debate itself and a lot to do with the pretty arbitrary media consensus on who “won” it. Less than half way through the Democratic debate the previous week, AP put out a press release saying that Hillary Clinton had “won”, and the mainstream media followed suit. An actual poll of MSNBC viewers on the day had put Obama on top (and indeed he overtook Clinton on subsequent polls early last week) but such was the media celebration of her victory that in the new Rasmussen poll she is back on top, with 34% to Obama’s 26%.
That a hasty conclusion in the debate “spin room” that Mitt Romney was the winner triggered an even greater turnaround in the polls just shows how undecided voters still are. I watched last week’s Republican debate, and with ten candidates on stage squabbling for air-time in between ludicrous questions (“would it be a good thing for America if Bill Clinton was back in the White House” etc) they looked more like contestants on The Apprentice than presidential candidates. The real winners from that bun-fight were the Democrats.