The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg had a follow-up piece on Friday's debate headlined "The Next Day, a New Debate on Who Won." The story described the McCain and Obama camps' attempts at "influencing the public perception of who won an encounter that produced no clear winner or loser."
Except–is it really true that the debate produced no clear winner? The initial polls pointed to Obama as a winner; CNN's poll released Friday night found that 51 percent of respondents thought Obama had done a better job, vs. 38 percent for McCain. CBS's Friday night poll of undecided voters had 40 percent calling Obama the winner, 22 percent saying McCain. Clearly, "winning" a presidential debate means improving your chances of getting elected, so polls of the public would appear to offer the best evidence of who "won."
Rutenberg alludes to these polls, yet dismisses them: "Mr. Obama appeared to have an edge in the various snap polls taken the night of the debate, though these are notoriously unreliable," Rutenberg wrote in the second half of the 18th paragraph–his only mention of polling data.
It's not clear how the polls immediately after a debate are "unreliable" gauges of who the public thought won that debate; while polling has its limitations, surely it's more accurate than pundits' speculations about who the electorate would think the winner would be. A less time-pressed USA Today/Gallup poll taken the day after the debate, and probably not available to Rutenberg before his deadline, confirmed the results of the "flash" polls: 39 percent said Obama won vs. 28 percent for McCain; among those who actually watched the debate, it was 46 percent Obama vs. 34 percent McCain.
But for Rutenberg, the public's own response seems to be rather beside the point; his story is about "campaigns go[ing] full-bore to convince the news media, and ultimately the public, that their candidate won," since it's "a common belief in presidential politics" that "many viewers base their judgment not necessarily on debate performance but on what they read and see in the days afterward."
In other words, it's the media's job to tell the public whom they thought won the debate.