That Art Of Graphing Uncommitted Voters

If you watched the presidential debates on CNN, you probably noticed the uncommitted voter graph lines at the bottom of your TV screen. Slate.com's Emily Bazelon says these lines are basically useless.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

For the first time, in the debates last night, the word abortion was mentioned. Let's hear an exchange between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain on late term abortions.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois, 2008 Democratic Presidential Nominee): With respect to partial birth abortion, I am completely supportive of a ban on late term abortions, partial birth or otherwise, as long as there's exception for the mother's health and life, and this did not contain that exception.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona, 2008 Republican Presidential Nominee): And just again, the example of the eloquence of Senator Obama, he said health for the mother. You know, that's been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, "health."

BRAND: OK. Emily Bazelon with slate.com is here now. She watched the debate on CNN, where they had that instant reaction ticker at the bottom of the screen from a panel of voters. It's divided between men and women.

Hi, Emily, and let's first talk about that CNN ticker. What does it tell you in general or if anything about where the public's reaction - where they stand on the candidates when they make these statements?

Ms. EMILY BAZELON (Writer, Slate.com): The ticker, I think, is mesmerizing. Everybody I know who was watching the debate on CNN end up with their eyes kind of glued to it. It can be very distracting. You know, it doesn't tell us very much. There are about 30 people maybe who are watching, and at this point, the idea that you're someone who would want to come into the CNN studios and turn a dial, but you don't know who you're voting for? It's hard to imagine exactly who those people are. If you're really undecided at this point, why would you be someone who was excited about spending the evening at CNN?

BRAND: Well, I guess it beats spending the evening, I don't know, in a less exciting place, but what do the two lines tell you when you watch them, the men and women, when they diverge.

Ms. BAZELON: Well, just let me just say, in the first debate, it wasn't - the lines weren't about men and women. They were about Republicans and Democrats and Independents, and they were pretty predictable. When the Democratic candidate spoke, the Democrats were more positive, and when the Republican candidate spoke, the Republicans were positive. And then there was this independent line, which sort of felt like the only one worth watching, but then wondered if there were like three people in it.

And then, in the second debate, CNN quite cleverly, I think, switched over to a divide between men and women. And it suddenly seemed much more riveting to watch these different reactions. In general, it seems like the women favor Obama's positions when he's speaking. They're more positive, and men tend to be more positive about John McCain.

BRAND: OK. So what happened during that abortion back and forth?

Ms. BAZELON: My memory of the CNN ticker at that moment was that women went way up for Obama and went down for John McCain, and that men stayed much more kind of an even par for that. And, you know, my problem with the ticker and the generative on it is that I'm just not sure what it's really telling us. We really have no context for these divisions, and so it just seems to be quite reductionist and confirming our preconceptions that men and women might have on it.

BRAND: Let's talk just a brief bit about the supporting actor at last night's debate, and I'm not talking about Bob Schieffer the moderator. I'm talking about Joe the plumber. What did you make of that, that he came up so frequently in this debate?

Ms. BAZELON: Well, what I couldn't believe about Joe the plumber was that McCain - he was McCain's creation; he was like McCain's best friend - that he was going to be the way that McCain personalized the debate, made it clear that he cares about real people. But according to the Washington Post, he got Joe the plumber wrong. If the Washington Post could write about that, it seems like campaign malpractice to me to have McCain relying so heavily on this one individual and then have it turn out that he's wrong about it.

BRAND: Although interviews today, Joe the plumber is quite the media star today. He's still backing John McCain.

Ms. BAZELON: Right, well, it just seems like it's his moment in the sunlight.

BRAND: Emily Bazelon at slate.com and she writes also for the XX Factor there. Thanks a lot, Emily.

Ms. BAZELON: Thanks for having me.

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