Swing Voters Choose Obama in Final Xbox LIVE Debate, but Was Poll Too Distracting?

The final debate has come and gone, and I spent it parked in front of my Xbox 360, tapping answers on my gamepad to poll questions that appeared onscreen at a rapid-fire rate roughly twice that of the second presidential showdown.

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Scott Audette / Reuters

U.S. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (L) makes a point as U.S. President Barack Obama listens during the final U.S. presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida, October 22, 2012.

The final debate has come and gone, and I spent it parked in front of my Xbox 360, tapping answers with my gamepad to poll questions that appeared onscreen at a rapid-fire rate roughly twice that of the second presidential showdown. The winner? Obama, according to voters who identified as “undecided,” picking Obama by 56% versus just 14% for Romney and 31% who declared it a draw.

Where Microsoft and YouGov asked about 70 questions in a 90-minute period last time — a little less than one per minute — they managed to squeeze some 130 into the final 90-minute debate, collecting an impressive three million responses with between 30,000 and 35,000 respondents weighing in per question.

For the most part, I enjoyed the process, answering and watching questions play out in real time, like “Do you support the way the U.S. has responded to fatal attacks on Americans in Libya?” (of undecideds, 18% said yes, 38% said no and 44% chose “not sure”), or “Is the U.S. safer from terrorism than four years ago?” (of undecideds, 45% said yes, 27% said no and 28% chose “about the same”), or “Who is being more truthful?” (of undecideds, 38% said Obama, 14% said Romney and 48% chose “don’t know”).

But I occasionally took issue with the way the poll questions were asked. Take this one, which appeared more than once over the course of the debate: “If you were to vote today, which candidate would you choose?” Allowed answers: Obama, Romney, or “not sure.”

What about “neither”? What about “I support a third-party candidate”? Sadly not options. Those who supported an alternative candidate were forced to answer (or just ignore) the implied question: “Who would I vote for if I could only pick between these two?”

Did Microsoft and YouGov have to agree to stipulations by the Commission on Presidential Debates in order to stream the debates? Was asking about third parties off limits, as is bringing them into the debates per the CPD’s so-called 15% rule? Despite the Green or Libertarian Party candidates, for instance, being on the ballot in a majority of states? (Both Libertarian party candidate Gary Johnson, who’s on the ballot in 48 states, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who’s on the ballot in 37 states, are separately suing the CPD for not allowing them into the debates.) I’ve posed the question to Microsoft, and I’ll update this story if I get a response.

Update: Microsoft says it did, in fact, offer a question about third-party candidates — “#XboxPoll: Should the Libertarian and Green Party be included in the debates?” — which I must have missed, probably at the outset (I tuned in just as Obama and Romney were taking the stage, and the polling had already started). My concerns about the phrasing of the question listed above stand.

There may be another problem with live polling as a subset of “live interaction,” especially if you factor in services like Twitter and Facebook. I suspect that many watching the debates on Xbox LIVE were, like me, also monitoring or engaging through Twitter and Facebook. It’s what we do these days, often vamping and cracking jokes as events occur. But is all this interaction coming at a cost? Are we too distracted to properly analyze what we’re hearing, especially in a debate where many of the responses were complex or wide-ranging?

By nearly doubling the number of questions, Microsoft was able to push its Xbox LIVE engagement numbers up, which makes for an impressive day-after press release. But something the live poll didn’t measure is how well people answering and watching the responses to twice as many poll questions as during the prior debate — roughly one-and-a-half questions a minute — were actually tuned-in to what Obama and Romney were saying.

All I have is anecdotal evidence. I found myself inadvertently missing or muddling through moments during the debate as I considered each poll question and its responses, then fiddled with Twitter and Facebook. Nicholas Carr talks about this in his book The Shallows — something that’s called “switching costs,” which come into play when we multitask, the idea being that the more we try to do at once, the greater the penalty we pay cognitively.

Here’s the American Psychological Association on switching costs:

Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Meyer has said that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.

I don’t have the answer. I raise my hand to ask the question only.

In any case, Microsoft has been clear that this was all a bit of an experiment and thus a learning process for them as much as for us as participants. This is new space and, frankly, I’d rather see the live polls continue than not — with improvements to question design and frequency, of course, to give the whole process more than just entertainment value.

16 comments
consiliumetanimus
consiliumetanimus

Would have voted RON PAUL across the board, had that been an option...

JohnYuEsq
JohnYuEsq

Friends, Americans, countrymen, lend me your ears;I come to bury Romney, not to praise him.The evil that men do lives after them;The good is oft interred with their bones;So let it be with Romney. The noble Obama Hath told you Romney was ambitious:If it were so, it was a grievous fault,And grievously hath Romney answer'd it.Here, under leave of Clinton and the rest -For Clinton is an honourable man;So are they all, all honourable men

TheAgentLoki
TheAgentLoki

@MaryKateClark I love this game! The bigot/sexist/etc is so entertaining. Going tip check out out right now.

x_HighLy
x_HighLy

@MaryKateClark I totally missed it maybe cause I'm tired.

MaryKateClark
MaryKateClark

Sometimes the answer options were very frustrating.  They would ask things about both candidates at once and not allow for answers to reflect the split between candidates.  If they asked, for example: "Do you think the candidates have been honest about their intended policies?" To which participants could only answer:  "A. Yes" ..."X. No" ..."B. I don't know."  What is one to answer if one candidate seemed to be honest, the other dishonest.  

I enjoyed participating in the polls, but I certainly wanted to choose answers that accurately reflected my thoughts and feelings... and many times, due to the framing of the questions and answers, that was impossible to achieve.  

But Obama and Biden did appear to consistently garner significantly more positive responses from the viewers in each of the XBL hosted debates.  I think what Microsoft did in hosting a live feed of the debates was commendable.  I'm pleased and impressed with how many of us took part in watching and responding to the polls.  The spirit of participation is strong (as it should be)... the more participants, the better.  

We cannot afford apathy.  It is a greater threat than hate. 

chris
chris

Omammy declared war on white America when he went on the TV and said he had an extreme hatred for white people.  We are the 90% and he is at war with us and if he gets relected there will be blood in the streets, another civil war, I dont know what, but FOR GODS SAKE ELECT ROMNEY!!!!  He is our only hope as the Constituion hangs by a thread.

MaryKateClark
MaryKateClark

@TheAgentLoki LMAO =-) We should play this more often.

MaryKateClark
MaryKateClark

@x_HighLy You didn't miss anything worth seeing. Just an idiot with crazy ideas who somehow gets the internet despite living under a rock.

MaryKateClark
MaryKateClark

@x_HighLy He was calling Obama "Omammy" and going on about "blood in the streets" and "white america" and such. Backward and racist as hell

mattpeckham
mattpeckham

@MaryKateClark I agree. I don't know enough about poll design to speak for the pollsters, but I think when roughly one-third of the time you're looking for fairly obvious answers (like "neither" as opposed to "don't know" or "not sure"), there's a problem.

Then again, as noted, this is all experimental turf, so I'm assuming Microsoft and YouGov will take all this back and rethink how to do it during the next live polling event, whatever it turns out to be.

JoyceJacobson
JoyceJacobson

@chris Please supply documentation of that allegation from a reputable source. Not Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the KKK newsletter, any other hate filled racist source. And don't bring God into this, or threats to the Constitution. You might also wish to explain that 90% comment. 

consiliumetanimus
consiliumetanimus

@chris -if we are in fact in a war with the 10%, why would you vote for the poster-child of the big corporate, mutli-millionaire lobby? Romney IS the guy who was selling our jobs overseas and laying people off. He is as pro-corporate, pro-%1 as you can get. Did you know BAIN Capital forced its employees to train their Chinese counterparts, before they were all fired?

TheAgentLoki
TheAgentLoki

@MaryKateClark Always fun. That was a rousing round of it. The other fun part its exposing them to wider audiences.

x_HighLy
x_HighLy

@MaryKateClark lol he was suppose to be the mascot for the KKK.

x_HighLy
x_HighLy

@MaryKateClark I didn't see that. Did you know really who uncle Sam originally was suppose to be?

MaryKateClark
MaryKateClark

@x_HighLy WOW... you know some people get very confused notions of patriotism ...and their own identities for that matter. It's sad.