In an effort to answer the question What do undecided voters think?, CNN took a focus group of fence-sitters and measured their real-time reactions during the presidential debates. Wall Street Journal media reporter Sam Schechner says those squiggly lines at the bottom of your TV screen may be more influential than you think.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. MALE CORRESPONDENT: Welcome back to The Most News in the Morning. If you were watching the debate last night on CNN, you saw instant feedback on the debate as it was taking place in real time. MALE CORRESPONDENT: The Democrats, if you watch those lines on CNN, are ahead on Iraq. MALE CORRESPONDENT: It really is fascinating to watch this instant feedback with the dial meters on the bottom of the screen. BOB GARFIELD: Along with the usual expert debate analysis from pundits, pols and reporters, CNN this year has been offering a novel kind of instant feedback – squiggly lines, like threads of DNA, spooled across the bottom of your TV screen.
The lines represent the real time reactions of a panel of undecided voters, each equipped with a dial meter to register his or her moment-to-moment reaction to the candidates’ remarks. Statistically speaking, it is entirely irrelevant, but it’s possibly influential, nonetheless. Research suggests that merely observing the opinions of others may influence your own.
Media reporter Sam Schechner wrote about this effect for The Wall Street Journal, and he joins us. Sam, welcome to On the Media. SAM SCHECHNER: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: I just don't think we can emphasize enough the notion that the response of a room of 24 people is essentially meaningless. I am correct about that, am I not? SAM SCHECHNER: It might be a relatively good measure of how those people in the room feel, but if you’re trying to abstract to undecided voters as a whole, you know, even the people who conduct it aren't looking for that kind of data. They're trying to figure out how certain kinds of phrases or arguments go over with people in general, but they're not building any broad consensus about who won the debate or who’s performing better. BOB GARFIELD: And if there were a different selection of 24 people in the room, chances are the squiggles would go in entirely different ways. SAM SCHECHNER: Yes, although they go out of their way to find people who are - really claim to be undecided. The people who are doing this for CNN are two researchers from SMU, and from thousands of voters in the Ohio area they cull this group of 25 or 30 voters, to the point where they're searching on LexisNexis, searching on Facebook to see if they have any political leanings and constantly encouraging them to drop out if, in fact, they are decided. But, obviously, there’s going to be a lot of variation. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so I saw this quote from Nora Ephron, the writer and sometimes director, who said that, yeah, she knows it’s not statistically significant but she can't help being affected by what the squiggles say, especially when they validate her own reaction. She is not alone, I gather. SAM SCHECHNER: I'm certainly with her on that. I can't keep my eyes off of it. McCain makes a joke and I want to know if the sarcasm played well or not. And your heart rises and falls with it.
But there’s certainly also a body of research that shows that people get affected by this sort of on-screen live display too. BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about the research. SAM SCHECHNER: Well, in one study conducted at Williams College, a professor used dial meters, much like the ones on CNN, with a group of 94 students who were watching excerpts of a 1984 debate between Reagan and Mondale.
And half of those students were in a room where the on-screen feedback, which they thought was their own, was manipulated to be pro-Reagan and the other half were in a room where it was manipulated to be pro-Mondale.
They thought that what they were seeing was their own reaction but, in fact, in the other room the professor saw that as the manipulated feedback went up, two seconds later the students would follow it. And after the fact, most people told the researchers that they had not been influenced at all, but that wasn't, in fact, true.
Those students who saw the pro-Reagan feedback were almost three times more likely to say they would have voted for Reagan, and those who saw the pro-Mondale feedback were almost two times more likely to say they would have voted for Mondale. BOB GARFIELD: Now, there was another experiment of audience reaction of another sort, namely the live audience reaction, laughter and applause. This was the Reagan/Mondale debate in which Reagan got off one of the great debate zingers of all time. RONALD REAGAN: I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience. [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE] SAM SCHECHNER: What the experiment did was show two versions of that debate to students, one with the audience reaction and one without the audience reaction. And in the one with the audience reaction, Reagan won by a four-to-one margin, but when the cheers were stripped out, the victory was heavily Mondale’s. So just hearing what, in essence, was the laugh track, back in those days, had a pretty profound effect on at least the participants in this study. BOB GARFIELD: Now, there’s one other debate that researchers looked at. This was 1992, involving George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and H. Ross Perot. SAM SCHECHNER: This is an interesting experiment, in part because it provides some evidence that these effects are at play in a real election, not just in an experimental setting.
This was the night of that actual debate. A bunch of students were convened to watch it, actually, right after the debate ended, and they were either in a room with people who were instructed to clap for Clinton and jeer Bush or in a room instructed to clap for Bush and jeer Clinton.
And, you know, being on a college campus, Clinton’s performance was rated more highly, on average, in both rooms. And actually, there was another room where nobody was cheering for anybody, and he was rated more highly there, too.
But in the pro-Bush room, Bush’s performance was rated nearly double after the fact, putting him almost on par with Clinton, and Clinton’s performance edged up slightly with encouragement from the audience.
So, you know, if you look at the bar chart, it’s a massive difference. Bush almost pulls even, in terms of how people reacted, just based on the people who were sitting next to them. BOB GARFIELD: Which is perhaps one reason why live audiences at the debates this time around have been instructed by the moderators to sit on their hands and keep their mouths shut.
Now, Sam, we have established that the squiggly lines do not represent any statistically significant data. And if this research is correct, we've established that people are influenced by the squiggly lines. Does that not mean that it is journalistically irresponsible to put them on the TV? I mean, is CNN doing the right thing in adding this feature to its coverage? SAM SCHECHNER: We're social animals. We process information in the context of the people around us. We do watch our debates with friends or at a bar or in some sort of group environment, frequently, in part because we want to hear the reactions of other people. That’s in part why Nora Ephron and you and I can't stop looking at that CNN line on the bottom of the screen.
I think it’s hard to argue, necessarily, that it’s a bad thing. In fact, the people who do it – the professors at SMU – see it as a way of shifting some of the balance of influence from pundits, who have been shown to be able to have a pretty strong effect with their pre- and post-debate spin and how they set expectations and frame the debates to actual voters. And even if it’s not a statistically significant sample size, these are real people, and them versus Andrea Mitchell, I -you know, doesn't necessarily mean that one is better than the other. BOB GARFIELD: Sam, thank you very much. SAM SCHECHNER: Thank you very much, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Sam Schechner is a media reporter for The Wall Street Journal.