Who'll win Wednesday's debate? Watch CNN's 'lines'

Kansas City StarOctober 13, 2008 

Right after each presidential debate -- the third one is at 9 p.m. Eastern Wednesday at New York's Hofstra University -- every TV pundit with a microphone feels obliged to offer an opinion about who won or lost it.

The problem with these pronouncements became obvious as one talking head after another declared that John McCain had "drawn" or "won" the town-hall format debate with Barack Obama in Nashville. As several polls later revealed, a decisive majority of viewers, including independent and uncommitted voters, gave the win to Obama.

The problem is that the people covering the candidates have no idea how to watch these debates with fresh eyes and ears. Therefore, they're judging each man based on completely different criteria than the average viewer. I must have heard a half a dozen pundits say that the two men had said "nothing new" in the Nashville debates, and that Obama and McCain were simply "repeating lines from their stump speeches."

Well, gee, wouldn't it be nice to be paid to watch candidates give stump speeches all day? Most of us aren't, however, and to quote old NBC marketing slogan, if you haven't heard it before, "it's new to you." (Besides, any seasoned reporter who said there was "nothing new" said in Nashville was asleep at the wheel: McCain unveiled a mortgage bailout plan during the debate, though more pundits paid attention to his using the phrase "that one" while introducing it.)

I'll be watching CNN this week. Not only did CNN's political team have the most interesting and least biased observers (Jeffrey Toobin, in particular, has been terrific: sharp, witty and gifted with a golden gut), but during each of the debates it's had this polygraph thing going at the bottom of the screen.

We've talked about those dials before. They're known sometimes as "perception analyzers" and they often really are like truth detectors, because they capture a viewer's immediate and visceral response, before s/he can even form an opinion about what s/he has just seen.

As such, perception analysis has delivered a completely different narrative about the 2008 campaign than anything you'll hear after the debates. (I'm surprised that CNN doesn't do more analysis of its own measuring device, but mostly the talking heads ignore the polygraph and just wait for the flash poll.)

Here's a great example. Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, gave an interview to the filmmakers of "The War Room" for their new followup documentary, "Return of the War Room," airing tonight on the Sundance Channel. And here Luntz talks about how he, too, has hooked focus groups up to these dials and shown them footage of Obama and McCain.

"Everytime John McCain comes on reading from a teleprompter, the dials come straight down," Luntz said. "The whole purpose of a teleprompter is not to be seen as reading, so if you've got to use this gimmick and people can tell you are using this gimmick, this teleprompter, it makes them feel more negative toward you because it means you don't have it inside you."

That contrasts with Barack Obama, Luntz said. "When he does his election night speeches all across the country . . . behind Obama are all these faces that are nodding," Luntz said, recalling focus groups he'd organized. "He's saying nothing, and the dials are going higher and higher, and so i stopped the group and i asked 'What the hell is you're problem?' and they say, they're all so happy, that I'm happy."

Mind you, that is a Republican pollster speaking.

I'm not saying it's over, but I am saying that if McCain can't figure out how to get focus testers to turn the dial the other way whenever he opens his mouth ... then it's all but over.

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