Debate Reaction Dial ‘Squigglys’

CNN Debate Dials from YouTube Debate

CNN Debate Dials from YouTube Debate

Nate Silver seconds Mike Murphy‘s plea for television networks to end the practice of showing the instant reaction of uncommitted voters via dial group “squigglys” on the screen during presidential debates.

Says Murphy:

First, the sample from one group is far too small to mean much. Second, turning this voodoo into a television spectacular completely distorts whatever limited research value a group might provide. Research technique is supposed to leave respondents alone and unmolested, not plopped down in front of live TV cameras. No wonder the respondents in these groups are really thinking about their key lighting and asking how you get an agent. Their minds are on anything but what they really think about the candidates.

Silver agrees and adds,

It’s not that the squiggly lines aren’t fun to watch. Rather, they’re too much fun to watch. It’s hard to avert your eyes from them. It’s hard to separate your own, independent reaction from theirs. And it’s certainly hard to integrate back into to the non-squiggly universe once you’ve gotten hooked on the squigglys.


The problem is that the squigglys may give thirty random strangers from Bumbleweed, Ohio just too damned much power to influence public perception. The squigglys influence the home viewers, the home viewers participate in the snap polls, the snap polls influence the pundits, the pundits influence the narrative and — voilà! — perceptions are entrenched.

Daniel Davies, however, loves the dials.

I love the crawler and think that it really helps you understand what’s going on in the debates — in particular, it helps you take one step back from your own prejudices. It’s also just about the only input into debate commentary that comes more or less unmediated; the anonymous “undecided” focus group participants might be dumb or irrational, but they’re at least not pushing an agenda. Raw data is always good to have — although Nate’s sample size points are well made, I actually doubt how much potential there is for practical error to be introduced, given that one doesn’t actually look to the crawler for straightforward yes/no answers to questions, just for an overall impression of how the participants are going over.

Thus far, CNN seems to be the only network using the technique.  Those of us who have access to their high-definition broadcast are also treated to pie charts wherein their talking heads score the debates.  The latter is just ridiculous, not only because they have four Democrats to two Republicans but because Paul Begala and Bill Bennett aren’t the target audience.

I tend to side with Davies on the squigglys.  It’s a very interesting insight into the minds of so-called undecided voters.  (I say so-called because few people who haven’t made up their minds at this point will actually muster up the enthusiasm vote.  Dave Schuler is a definite outlier in the group.)   It’s an in-your-face reminder to those of us who are political junkies that what seem to us as banal talking points are being heard for the first time by a large slice of the country.

Ken Levine may think these people are dolts unworthy of judging his sublime artistry but the fact of the matter is that they are the only judges that matter. A network can’t sustain the high cost of producing and broadcasting a sitcom if it only appeals to the critics and a political candidate can’t get enough votes to win office by appealing only to political junkies.   Like it or not, Joe Six Pack gets the final say.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Media, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. just me says:

    I haven’t watched CNN so haven’t seen them. When I watched the debates, I tended to just turn to whatever channel was closest taht was showing them. I think I mostly watched the networks for the debates, so I missed the squiggly things.

    They sound sort of gimmicky to me anyway, but then I think undecided voter groups are gimmicky as well.

  2. sam says:

    Thus far, CNN seems to be the only network using the technique.

    MSNBC uses them, though not concurrently with the debate. Nora O’Donnell comes on with some after-debate commentary showing the reactions of a focus group during the debate. Doesn’t have nearly the impact of the CNN use.

    Their use does, however, remind me of a story I read in Pauline Kael’s Raising Kane. Herman Mankiewitz, one of the screen writers on Citizen Kane, was well-known for his wit (and drinking). One night he was at a dinner party hosted by Harry Cohn, the tyrannical head of Columbia Pictures. Herman was in his cups when a young woman asked Cohn what he thought of a script that had been submitted recently. “I didn’t like it,” Cohn said. “It made my ass twitch, and if it makes my ass twitch, it’s no good.” Mankiewitz turned to one of his dinner partners and said in voice everyone could hear, “Imagine that, the whole world wired to Harry Cohn’s ass.” Needless to say, Herman was never invited to another of Harry’s parties.

  3. Leo says:

    I’m showing my age here, I remember watching the OJ Simpson preliminary hearing, with a similar display by a target audience with the graph going from “good for OJ” to “bad for OJ.”

    Instant analysis isn’t too good. My rule of thumb is that no one really knows what went on for a few days (that’s usually for crime stories, but I think it applies here, too.)

    Woo Hoo! No misspellings.