The mad science of the U.S. presidential election

By Steven Hill, Al Jazeera, September 20, 2012

The technology used in campaigns has changed over the years – and not for the better, writes Steven Hill.

The technology used in presidential campaigns has changed enormously in the modern era. The first televised debate in 1960 between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon was a bellwether; listeners tuning in via radio considered the debate a draw or even a slight win for Nixon. But the 65 million who tuned in by TV saw something very different. Kennedy appeared vigorous yet relaxed, while Nixon looked pale and nervous.

According to observers, sweat appeared on Nixon’s brow and cheeks, and his lips seemed at times to form a disoriented smile unrelated to his words. Those viewing the debate on television judged Kennedy as the clear winner. This prompted New York Times columnist Russell Baker to later write, “That night, television replaced newspapers as the most important communications medium in American politics”.

Things have moved on since then, particularly in recent years with the advent of the internet. The internet has been a democratising technology to some degree, but other technologies have dramatically undermined the public discourse. Powerful methods adapted from the commercial world to the political have turned politicians into brand names and products. Playwright Arthur Miller, who in his illustrious career dealt with his share of actors and staged drama, in 2001 pithily observed that political leaders have become actors who now understand “that to govern they must learn how to act”.

US politics used to be more art than science, more intuition and guts than script reading. But the mad science of campaigning has changed all that. Prior to the recent Democratic and Republican national conventions, the scriptwriters and mythmakers went to work, fashioning national images and sound bites that they hoped would resonate with targeted groups of voters.

Dial metre groups

Veteran reporter Howard Kurtz reported how the Obama campaign extensively pre-tested the president’s speech last Thursday night using a ghastly-sounding technology known as “dial metre groups”. Dial metre groups also were used to pre-test Obama’s “State of the Union” speech last January. What is a dial metre group? It’s a type of focus group where voters twist dials to register approval or disapproval of specific passages in a speech.

If focus groups are the barometer of what kind of campaign message gets people excited and why, then dial metre groups – also called electronic focus groups – are their creepy apotheosis. First, the participants in dial metre groups are carefully selected to meet certain demographic criteria, such as “swing voters in Ohio” or “soccer moms in Florida”. Then they are made to sit down in a place like an auditorium to watch speeches or political advertisements and coaxed to critique what they see.

Each participant holds a “perception analyser”, essentially a dial that can be moved left to right, from 0 to 100; if a participant agrees wholeheartedly with what is said or seen on the television screen, she or he moves the dial toward 100; with total disagreement, the dial is moved to zero. Each dial metre is hooked up to a computer which instantly graphs the responses of the participants, showing spikes of approval or flat lines of disinterest and boredom.

A presidential campaign can find out instantaneously from dial metre sites, wired to each other across the country, which phrases are instigating a reaction from the laboratory mice, i.e., voters, and which are falling flat.

Dial metre groups now are a standard feature in virtually every presidential race and other high-profile campaigns. When GOP vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney gave his acceptance speech in 2000, Republican pollsters had assembled a dial metre group of 36 undecided voters – one dozen each of Republicans, Democrats and independents – and sequestered them in a stuffy hotel room where they held “happy metres” to record their reactions to specific words and phrases as Cheney spoke.

At the 1996 recent Republican national convention, unbeknownst to the swarming faithful delegates or the media covering the convention, hidden in a cavernous room beneath the convention floor were campaign operatives carefully monitoring the reactions of dial metre groups. The viewers were scattered in far-flung cities – Seattle, Dallas, Denver, Buffalo and Atlanta – and cranked their dials as a bank of computers tracked their reactions in real time to the speeches occurring on the stage above.

This, tragically, has become the trajectory of US presidential campaigns. Even an eloquent speaker like Barack Obama has come to rely on the mad scientist consultants and pollster-geists and their laboratory of tricks. It’s a bizarre and frightening spectacle, this notion of wired humans co-operating in the fashioning of campaign missiles that will be aimed right back at people like themselves via television ads.

It is a kind of Orwellian group-think that is expertly crafted and staged to induce maximum emotional peaks from viewers, trying to attain a kind of visceral script that will prod, poke and catch their imagination. No wonder former New York Times columnist Frank Rich has called this new-fangled presidential selection process the “Survival of the Fakest”.

But wait a minute, say some defenders of the status quo. With polling and focus groups, politicians can more accurately discover the wishes and desires of the public and strive to meet that need. Don’t the new technologies create the possibility for increasing politicians’ responsiveness to the public? Even pandering, after all, is a form of responsiveness, is it not?

Crafted talk

But political scientists Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro, in their book Politicians Don’t Pander, debunked this notion. Jacobs and Shapiro showed that, while politicians rely heavily on the new campaign technologies and therefore appear responsive, in fact they use those technologies not to figure out or meet the needs of the public but instead to find words and phrases to manipulate and mislead voters.

This “crafted talk”, as the authors called it, is designed to “simulate responsiveness” – to hoodwink voters, and free the candidates to pursue their own partisan agendas. In other words, politicians are busy with their own agendas that have little to do with what the majority of voters want, and use the “crafted talk” and “simulated responsiveness” to sell their agendas like a used car salesman trying to foist a lemon onto customers.

Not surprisingly, McCampaigns have become little more than sales pitches and advertising jingles, using “crafted talk” and “simulated responsiveness” to sell political products. Campaigns, ideally, should be a time for the entire nation to debate ideas, policy and principle. Campaigns should be times when voters become more informed about policy differences between the candidates and parties, and make a deliberative decision that, in its aggregate, decides the direction of the nation. Campaigns ought to be a high civic moment when the nation’s best and brightest make a bid for power votes.

Yet, this is hardly what happens in US presidential elections anymore. To understand how far we’ve fallen, it is instructive to recall previous watersheds in our nation’s political history, such as the Lincoln-Douglas debates. In 1858, US Senatorial candidates Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln from Illinois engaged in seven debates, each lasting approximately three hours, debating hot button issues of the day like slavery, states’ rights and the Dred Scott decision. By all accounts, the debates were electrifying and artful, attended by large crowds who witnessed two master orators at the peak of their abilities.

In 1860, the transcript of these debates was published and used as an important campaign document in the presidential election that launched Lincoln to his date with destiny. The Lincoln-Douglas debates are now a revered part of American political folklore.

It’s hard to even imagine listening to today’s candidates’ debate for three hours at a stretch, with their sound bites, sneers and scripted slogans substituting for substance. The national conventions for both parties, which were pale infomercials for the already-anointed, were similarly bereft. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that great American presidents like Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson or Teddy Roosevelt could ever make it to the White House today, because they were too much orators for today’s sound-bite campaigns.

So when you get excited over a Barack Obama speech, remember: the mad scientists who work for him are really good at figuring out what you want to hear. And Obama, just like Bill Clinton and George W Bush, is really talented at reading the Teleprompter.

Steven Hill is a political writer and author of 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy: 2012 Election Edition and Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age.


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