Did the Debate Cover the Issues? Depends Whom You Ask.

Supporters of Sen. Barack Obama were more frustrated than those of Sen. John McCain at the conduct of the first presidential debate in Mississippi, according to the "Citizens Media Scorecard."

By wide margins, they were more dissatisfied with the narrow scope of the foreign policy questions chosen by moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS.

The Citizens Media Scorecard was an online rating of the debate by a panel of more than 4,600 volunteers conducted by the nonpartisan media reform group Free Press and analyzed by Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the Tyndall Report, which has monitored network television news for the last 20 years.

Where in the World is China?

Obama supporters in the panel tended to complain about the absence of questions on Africa (80% vs. 58% of McCain's) and China (74% vs.64%); and on the foreign policy issues of global warming (89% vs. 42%); human rights abuses (85% vs. 57%); AIDS and other diseases (86% vs. 55%); and globalized trade (76% vs. 56%).

The supporters of both candidates gave high marks to Lehrer's selection of questions about four major regions: At least 70% of each group scored him as "just right" for the time he devoted to Afghanistan and Pakistan; to Iran; to Russia and NATO; and to Iraq.

The Economy ...

Lehrer's decision to depart from the designated foreign policy topic of the debate and include questions about the financial crisis drew little criticism. More than half of each group of supporters rated the time he spent on high finance (50% of Obama's supporters vs. 50% of McCain's), federal spending (52% vs. 56%) and taxation (58% vs. 56%) as "just right." Many Obama supporters complained that Lehrer's economic questions did not also cover poverty (86% vs. 38%), Social Security (83% vs. 63%) and unemployment (77% vs. 46%) as well.

"Obama's supporters appeared to seek a more wide-ranging discussion of the problems facing the United States," said Andrew Tyndall, who designed the survey. "McCain's followers were more likely to focus on the key issues of war and peace and terrorism."

Was Lehrer 'Too Freewheeling'?

There was little difference between the two groups of partisans in their assessment of Lehrer's performance. Fewer than 10% of the overall panel said he did a "poor job" (36% excellent, 54% adequate).

His attempts to have the candidates interact without his intervention may have gone overboard; on a spectrum from "too controlling" to "too freewheeling," the panel tended to come down on the side of freewheeling (27% vs. 4%). Lehrer received high marks from the whole panel for being extremely plainspoken (47%) and being unbiased (77%).

Among those few who complained that Lehrer played favorites, McCain supporters (21% vs. 11% of Obama's) were more likely to complain about their candidate's treatment. Those complaints of bias aside, McCain's supporters were more positive about the debate overall. They were more likely to find it extremely helpful in deciding how to vote (46% vs. 25%) and in learning about their own candidate's positions (61% vs. 42%).

Broadcast TV Rated 'Poor'

McCain and Obama supporters alike tended to be more critical of the quality of election coverage by traditional broadcast news sources. Nearly 7 out of 10 McCain supporters (69%) rated election coverage by national network news as "poor" (versus 52% of Obama supporters). Nearly 7 out of 10 Obama supporters (68%) counted as "poor" local television news (versus 58% of McCain supporters).

But they were split on their assessment of commercial radio. Of McCain's supporters, 58% rated commercial radio coverage as either "adequate" or "excellent." Obama supporters overwhelmingly ranked commercial radio coverage as "poor" (78%).

The two groups of supporters tended to watch the debate on different outlets. MSNBC (27%) and PBS (26%) were the favorite outlets for Obama partisans. Fox News Channel was the favorite for fully 43% of the McCain voters in the panel.

Although Free Press extended outreach to all parts of the political spectrum, of the volunteers who participated in the scorecard, Obama supporters vastly outnumbered McCain's. To correct for that imbalance, these results have been reported by contrasting the ratings of the two groups rather than combining them, which would have drowned out the Republican perspective. Consisting of volunteers rather than a random sample, these results cannot be projected to the population at large.

Free Press continues to recruit volunteers from across the political spectrum for subsequent debates. "Perhaps Fox News will give us a hand with some outreach," Tyndall suggested.