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While Mitt Romney performed well in the first presidential debate in Denver, the reactions of a group of 45 swing voters watching in Denver suggest that the underlying political fundamentals have not changed.

Working in partnership with the Women’s Voices. Women Vote Action Fund, Democracy Corps asked those voters — including 16 unmarried women — to watch and respond as Romney dueled verbally with the President. Dial testing and post-debate discussion showed that the Republican nominee improved his personal appeal and gained ground on some issues.

Yet the Romney converts in the group were chiefly undecided voters who had been leaning Republican already — former McCain voters who had not yet warmed to this year’s GOP nominee. This wasn’t the game-changing moment that his campaign needs.

It is important to recognize that while we recruited swing voters for the WVWVAF-Democracy Corps focus group, most of the participants in the group reflected the remaining swing voters in much of the country. There were nearly twice as many Republican-leaning participants as Democratic-leaning participants—22 percent Democratic-leaning versus 42 percent Republican-leaning.  These participants voted for McCain by a nine-point margin in 2008.

Romney improved his personal appeal score in the group by 27 points, moving the needle most on “taxes,” the “economy” and being a “strong leader.”  In the dial tests, he impressed voters with his five-point economic plan, his promotion of small business, and his newfound commitment to bipartisanship.

“Romney cleared up a few things for me that I’d seen in commercials and hearsay,” said one participant. “It makes a lot more sense now.  The debate helped say he does know what is going on.”

And the President also had his moments.  His best moments in the dial tests came when he referred to the “Clinton model” and the former President’s job growth success, coupled with tax fairness.  Among unmarried women in particular, Obama’s promotion of community colleges and defense of Obamacare won him significant traction. “I like the whole community college aspect about Obama,” said one unmarried woman. “He has my best interests in heart.”

While Romney’s support grew, so did Obama’s. And all of Romney’s gains came from Republican-leaning undecided voters.  He did not move a single voter away from Obama.

Only 42 percent of the voters in this group concluded that Romney won the debate, no larger than the Republican lean of this small sample.  Nearly four in ten voters (38 percent) say neither candidate won the debate.

For all the data, see our numbers and analysis at Democracy Corps.

Photo by: Scout Tufankjian for Obama for America

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