February 25, 2008

Responding word-by-word to debate

Undecided Democrats participated in a real-time response focus group on the SMU campus using palm-sized electronic dials.
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If a small real-time response debate focus group sampled at SMU on Feb. 21 is any indicator, the Democratic primary will be a squeaker.

Using a palm-sized electronic Perception Analyzer Dials, eight women and two men signaled their take on what the candidates said. They dialed up when they liked what they heard and down when they didn’t. Their responses, measured on a scale of 1 to 100, were registered second-by-second in real time.

The group of undecided Democrats voted 5-5 when prompted to choose a candidate in the post-debate wrap-up.

“This was a pretty undecided group throughout the debate, and they’re still on the fence,” says Dan Schill, assistant professor, Corporate Communications and Public Affairs (CCPA), who monitored the group as part of an ongoing project with CNN. The real-time response chart, or EKG as Schill calls it, runs live on the network’s Web site during the debate.

For much of the 90-minute exchange, the EKG flatlined, indicating a neutral response from the group. While Clinton overall scored more “up” moments than Obama, she also registered the lowest point with her “change you can Xerox” jab, Schill says. Her graceful ending grabbed the highest numbers of the evening.

“This gave me a chance to be an active participant in the process,” says SMU junior Solomon Odom, one of two students in the focus group. Without any distractions, and with a job to do, “I definitely paid more attention to this debate than usual,” he adds.

Senior Steven Chlapecka and junior Patria Jackson assisted with pre-debate preparation and post-debate response measurements. The focus group assembled in the journalism division’s TV studio in Umphrey Lee. Broadcast journalism students worked a camera and manned the control room. Footage was recorded for possible use later by CNN.

Real-time response research figures prominently in an upcoming book by Schill and Professor Rita Kirk of CCPA. Kirk describes “Consent of the Governed,” slated for publication by early 2009, as an exploration of “how voters are talking back to candidates and the media” and are using technology “to reconnect with the political process and take control.”

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