POLITICS
08/11/2015 01:15 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2015

Here's What GOP Voters Thought About The First Debates

Among the winners: Carly Fiorina, Fox News and everyone who watched.

The first debates of the 2016 presidential cycle left primary voters with significantly improved opinions of Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson and Marco Rubio, a new HuffPost/YouGov poll finds. 

While most Americans are just beginning to pay attention to the 2016 elections, the debate reached a broad swath of the Republican and Republican-leaning voters who may make up part of next year’s primary electorate, more than half of whom say they’re still not sure whom they will vote for.

Sixty-five percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters said they at least saw clips of last Thursday’s main debate, while 57 percent saw parts of the 5 p.m. “happy hour” debate; even more reported following news analysis afterward. A smaller group tuned in for the full show, with 40 percent saying they watched the entire primetime debate and just 11 percent sitting through the full 5 p.m. broadcast.

The number of GOP voters in the survey who saw the first debate is relatively small, but their opinions about its outcome are clear: 66 percent said businesswoman Carly Fiorina was the winner, while no other candidate garnered more than 6 percent. Sixty-five percent said the debate improved their opinion of Fiorina.

None of the 10 candidates in the second debate of the night managed to steal the show as effectively as Fiorina. Still, there was something of a consensus about the winner: 23 percent of GOP voters who watched said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) did the best job, while 15 percent named businessman Donald Trump and 12 percent chose Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). The remaining candidates languished in the single digits.

Many of the contenders saw their image rise to some extent -- especially retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who rose with 52 percent of GOP voters who watched the debate. Forty-three percent of voters said they had an improved opinion of Rubio, and a quarter or more said they felt more positive about Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Fewer reported improved opinions of either former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Trump, perhaps in part because both are already familiar names to most Republicans. The onstage feud between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), meanwhile, did neither of them much good, earning them the least improvement in the eyes of voters. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who got little airtime during the debate, ranked in the middle, with an improved image with 22 percent of voters.

Debate watchers’ assessments of who turned in the best performance don’t exist in a vacuum. Instead, reactions tend to be deeply colored by post-debate coverage. The survey’s results bear this out: Voters don’t only think that Fiorina and Rubio did well; they also said they believe the media thinks they did well. Two-thirds say Fiorina received the most positive news coverage of anyone in the 5 p.m. debate. Twenty-two percent think Rubio was covered the most favorably after the main debate, similar to the percentage who said that he won.

While a good debate performance is unlikely to clear anyone a path to the nomination next year, it could provide a boost in the polls for some candidates -- say, Fiorina -- giving them a slice of the airtime that continues to be dominated largely by Trump.

“A debate performance that’s judged favorably can produce the equivalent of a sugar high: a few news cycles of positive coverage and a polling surge,” political scientist John Sides wrote last week, noting that “the high almost always wears off” long before the election.

Regardless of how the debate affects the candidates, many reporters and pundits argued that the real winner was Fox News, which scored record-high ratings. Sixty-three percent of Republican voters who watched the debate, as well as 56 percent of primetime debate watchers as a whole, said they approve of Fox’s approach to moderation.

They’re also excited to tune in for the second debate, scheduled to be broadcast next month on CNN. Eighty percent of GOP voters, including a near-universal 97 percent of those who watched the main debate, say they’re looking forward to seeing a rematch.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Aug. 8-10 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here. More details on the polls' methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov's reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample, rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

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