Once again, the numbers buried in CNN's debate poll are, if anything, worse for John McCain than Barack Obama's overall 58 - 31 percent "win." On the issues, it was all Obama. Poll respondents thought he would do a better job on the economy than McCain by a 59 - 35 percent margin, a better job on health care by 62 - 31 percent, and (with apologies to Joe the Plumber) a better job on taxes by 56 - 41 percent. Sixty-six percent of respondents though Obama presented his views more clearly, compared to 25 percent for McCain.
Obama was also seen as a "stronger leader" by a substantial 23 points, an improvement on his 11-point margin in the last debate. And, as before, the only categories McCain won were ones you'd rather lose: "attacks more" (an overwhelming 80 - 7 percent) and "typical politician" (54 - 35 percent).
But, once again, it's the likeability numbers that are probably most devastating to McCain. As I suggested last week (and Andrew Romano was kind enough to confirm), no candidate who was substantially less likeable on television than his opponent has won the presidency since the medium assumed its central place in American politics. In the previous debate, Obama won the likeability prize 65 - 28 percent, for a 37-point margin. This week, the margin was 48 points.
As the subject of an Oliver Stone biopic opening tomorrow could attest, it's entirely possible to win a presidential race (or two) against an opponent who voters believe knows more. Against an opponent whom voters like better, though, it means swimming against a strong tide of history.