WASHINGTON -- President Obama was the runaway winner of the presidential debate on foreign policy this week, a nationwide USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds. But rival Mitt Romney edges him when voters assess which candidate did a better job in their three debates overall.
The survey shows Obama staging a dramatic comeback in the debates after a disastrous start. He trailed Romney by 52 percentage points when Americans were asked who did a better job at the first debate in Denver, but then was seen as besting his opponent by 13 points in the town hall-style debate on Long Island that followed. In the third debate, held Monday in Florida, Obama was seen as the winner by 23 points, 56%-33%.
But when Americans were asked to think more broadly about the three debates as a whole, Romney scored a narrow advantage, 46%-44%, as having done a better job.
"What we find in our research is that debates don't work in a cumulative fashion in a sense of adding up the pluses and minuses per candidate per debate," says Mitchell McKinney of the University of Missouri. "On several levels, the first debate really has the greatest effect; it's the first impression. That's the first time we see them together, and we size them up in terms of comparison shopping."
While Obama managed to do damage control by replacing a disengaged manner in the first debate for a much more confrontational one, McKinney says, the initial encounter had a lasting impact.
More Americans tuned into the debates than four years ago.
Nearly seven in 10, 69%, say they watched or listened to the third debate. Even more, 76%, saw or heard the second debate; 67% tuned in to the first one.
Those results are higher than in 2008, when Obama debated Republican John McCain. Then, 63% to 66% said they watched or listened.
The new survey of just over 1,000 adults was taken in the two days following each of the three debates. The margin of error is +/- 4 points.