By David Hill - 10/07/08 06:34 PM EDT
Typically, I don’t get to watch the presidential debates in full, at least in real time. Usually I am on a plane, on a campaign conference call or otherwise distracted by real life. So it was a pleasure to discover that I would be home on the night of the vice presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. But my pleasure ended up in pain because I became ensnared in CNN’s data-geeky version of the affair.
I know, I know. There were multiple stations carrying the debate, but I get CNN in high definition and the screen presentation initially drew me in. There were data points all over the screen, so you’ll understand how a pollster might have been seduced. Underneath the actual video window of the debate was a moment-to-moment line graph of the responses of men and women — supposedly uncommitted voters — locked up in a room somewhere else in Missouri and dialing madly in reaction to every answer.
Clustered all around the screen were circles containing the debate scoring points — positive and negative — being made by various consultants, operatives and what are generously referred to these days as “senior strategists.” The only thing that was missing would have been blood pressure, heart rate and galvanic skin-response monitors showing the candidates’ stress levels as questions were asked and answers given. Or perhaps CNN should have supplied each member of the audience with eye-tracking devices where we could follow their moment-to-moment visual experience. I know that for several minutes I couldn’t concentrate on anything besides that lock of Palin’s bangs that seemed stuck in her left eyeball.
It was as if Edward Tufte, the guru of presenting quantitative data, had joined with Stanley Kubrick to recreate the scenes in Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” where experimentalists force people to watch violent video while clamping open their eyelids. Over-the-top doesn’t come close to describing the CNN presentation.
The consultant scoring was the biggest joke. Ed Rollins is working his joystick like the Mad Hatter, rolling up positive point after bonus point for Palin, while Democrats like Paul Begala are sending negative ions her way.
This is as informative as watching a Chinese gymnastics coach score an Olympic event with his own charges doing the vaults and parallel bars. It’s entertaining, in a cynical sort of way, but not particularly informative.
The poor dolts locked away with dials were in even worse shape. The consultants could go to the bathroom, presumably, and no one would know the difference. But the uncommitted dialers weren’t given a break.
The moment-to-moment graphing reminded me of a debate that I once scored in Des Moines, Iowa, when dial devices were in their infancy. This was all new, gee-whiz stuff in the 1980s and we were still figuring out how it worked. I locked 30 solid Iowans, some in genuine Bib overalls, in a focus group room to watch Jack Kemp debate some Democrat. It was hot and the wheezing air conditioner was not keeping up. Though the participants had never before seen or heard of such devices, and did not have the incentive of being on national television, they worked those devices like Vegas slot machine junkies for 90 minutes. When it was done, I opened the door and the awful odor that emanated from that crypt almost choked me. It was then that it occurred to me that some sort of “human subjects” research regulations might be needed to prevent abuse of voters with this new-age technology.
The CNN presentation strikes me as the ultimate example of technology and style over substance. I would have much rather heard Alex Castellanos and Wolf Blitzer simply chat occasionally in whispers throughout the debate, as in a director’s running commentary during a movie.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.