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.