Focus Groups Spin the Dial During Debates

In a studio at ABC affiliate WMUR, focus group participants of both parties recorded immediate reactions to the Saturday night debate performance of the 2008 presidential fray with the simple spin of a dial.

Split into two groups of undecided voters — in the first, 32 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents recorded reactions to the Republican debate; in the second, 24 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents recorded reactions to the Democratic debate — participants were chosen from a random list of registered voters across the state of New Hampshire. When they liked something a candidate said, they dialed up; when they didn't, they dialed down.

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It's called Real Time Response and it does just that: It measures voter reactions to the positions, posturing and in-fighting of the presidential candidates almost as soon as the words leave their mouths. The study is part of a book being written by Southern Methodist University professors Rita Kirk and Dan Schill called "Consent of the Governed," which examines American voters trying to regain control of the political process in the technological age.

"The real purpose of this," Kirk explained, "is that instead of the journalist saying 'this is the most important part of the debate' the voter says 'this is the most important part of the debate.'"

Beyond that it measures the issues that instinctively matter to voters in determining the future direction of their party before media influence shapes the interpretation of the outcome. In other words, the political in-party bickering that makes good television doesn't always resonate with the voter.

"It contradicts the notion that negative campaigning has this great effect," Kirk said. "There is a growing movement [among voters] — this is not what we want to hear."

Measuring the Voter Pulse

On screen, Real Time Response looks like a heart monitor and doesn't deliver har numbers; rather, it measures rises, falls and neutrality. Voter attitudes translate into colored horizontal lines — one for the party, one for the independents and one for the aggregate of the two — to follow the voter pulse against a candidate's rhetoric and behavior. Following accord and discord between the party loyalists and the independents is visually easy, as the lines weave together and apart.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., remains a divisive figure among the Democratically inclined, earning steady favor among those who define themselves as Democrats and considerably less from Democratically inclined independents. The divide was most evident when she accused Democratic rival of Sen. Barack Obama of changing positions.

Dials turned down among the Republican-minded focus group during the GOP debate when Arizona Sen. John McCain swiped at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as a "candidate of change." Fiery debate theater at its best, the focus group assigned McCain the lowest marks of the evening. It was a trend among Republicans and Democrats alike: When it came to political in-fighting within their own party, dials turned down.

Between debates as a whole, Kirk said the numbers reveal that the Democrats as a whole are a lot more satisfied with their candidate choices than their Republican counterparts. Republican candidates, she said, do not illicit much differentiation except on the issues of illegal immigration.

She said the data would be valuable to a candidate's campaign when looking for the topics that have more sway with voters.

Most important, Kirk emphasizes that the experience puts voters back in the driver's seat of the political process.

Without outside influence, it allows voters to define "the issues that are hot to the party, the issues with which we are really concerned," explained Kirk.