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2 Professors Are Brains Behind CNN’s Live Audience Tracking at Conventions

Charlotte, N.C. — During his acceptance speech last week at the Republican National Convention, Mitt Romney affirmed his anti-abortion stance and his opposition to gay marriage, an appeal to his party’s conservative base that, predictably, drew thunderous applause from the audience.

But among a group of about two dozen undecided Florida voters assembled in a television studio just outside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, where Mr. Romney was speaking, his one-liner about social issues tanked. The undecided voters’ average rating for the speech fell into the thirties, hitting one of the lowest points of the night on the zero-to-100 scale.

“All the pundits were talking about abortion last week, but these social issues are not important to real undecided voters,” said Rita Kirk, a communications professor at Southern Methodist University who conducts live dial-testing of political events for CNN.

Since the 2008 election cycle, Ms. Kirk and her research partner, Daniel Schill, an assistant professor of communications at Southern Methodist, have been gathering groups of undecided voters and recording, in real time, their reactions to presidential debates and election-night speeches, among other events. After running groups at last week’s Republican National Convention, they will be doing the same here at this week’s Democratic National Convention.

The pair first pitched the focus-group idea to CNN in 2007 as an innovative way to report on presidential campaigns.

“We wanted to get the issues real voters care about back into the conversation,” Ms. Kirk said, adding that the focus groups not only make for “good television” but offer a more meaningful level of analysis to the coverage.

Before setting up shop at the Republican convention last week, the professors called 5,000 randomly selected Florida voters, from which they settled on a group of 57 who were undecided. About half of them participated each night of the convention.

On Thursday night, as the speeches began, the voters turned the knobs on wireless, handheld dials to indicate their level of satisfaction with what they were hearing.

Several feet away in the CNN studio, Ms. Kirk, Mr. Schill, and their team of undergraduate assistants hovered around monitors that displayed the voters’ average approval, broken down by gender. They Tweeted notable trends and passed along their analysis to a reporter, Tom Foreman. Mr. Foreman then asked the voters follow-up questions for an on-air segment.

During the highly produced biographical video introducing Mitt Romney at the convention, Mr. Schill noted that the female voters were responding more favorably than the men by a 20-point margin. The overall response rate, though, was tepid compared with previous such promotional videos, he added.

A handful of themes are sure bets for a strongly positive reaction from the undecided voters, Mr. Schill said. Not surprisingly, feel-good remarks about the American dream, opportunity, and hard work are the ones that consistently perform well. Negative statements about an opponent, by contrast, tend to evoke instantaneous disapproval from those in the focus groups, he said.

A lack of change in voters’ reactions can also provide insight into how they are receiving a speech, according to Mr. Schill, who teaches a class on political rhetoric.

“He’s flat-lining,” Mr. Schill said at one point on Thursday night, directing attention to a perfectly horizontal line appearing on the chart for several seconds during a speech by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. “That means he’s lost their attention. From a speechwriter’s perspective, you want to have more of a crescendo there.”

Both professors, who published an article on their findings from the 2008 election in American Behavioral Scientist, acknowledged that their dial-testing was limited in scope but served an important purpose nonetheless.

“We’re not pollsters. We’re not trying to find out where a large number of people stand on issues,” Ms. Kirk said. “Our goal is to see which arguments are resonating and ask, Why are those arguments resonating?”

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