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Zigs and zags favored Dukakis in Spokane test

October 14, 1988

By Tom Sowa 
The Spokesman-Review
and Spokane Chronicle

Millions of TV viewers around the country felt the voting pulse of Spokane on Thursday night through a computer system that zigged and zagged during the second presidential debate.

After the electronic zigs and zags were measured, more voters in a test group of 90 Spokane County residents had decided that Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis had done better than his opponent, Vice President George Bush.

But the big winner of the evening was Tom Westbrook, the Spokane inventor of the system used at the KHQ (Channel 6) studio to measure debate responses.

Westbrook had two minutes of glory when millions of viewers watching NBC’s post-debate coverage heard all about KHQ’s experiment with his device.

During that report, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw talked via satellite with reporter Connie Chung, who was in Spokane, about how Westbrook’s Tell-Back equipment worked and what Spokane’s experiment had proved.

The system asked 90 uncommitted voters to twist a small plastic dial one way when they agreed with Dukakis’ remarks, and the other way when Bush said something they liked.

During the debate, Westbrook’s computer was wired to the 90 handsets used by the test group.

This is what Tell-Back produced: 50 members of the group said Dukakis won and 30 said Bush came out on top. Ten said they were unsure who won.

In that group, 47 were women, 43 were men.

Before the debate, 43 people in the group said they leaned toward Bush as their choice, and 41 said they leaned toward Dukakis. Six were solidly undecided. After the debate, 52 said they favored Dukakis and 38 said they were inclined to vote for Bush.

Jack Reber, KHQ’s general manager, was nearly as happy with the equipment as Westbrook. Reber had decided to use the Tell-Back system after seeing results Westbrook came up with for The Spokesman-Review and Spokane Chronicle during last month’s presidential debate.

Reber’s belief in the system led him to another step, adding a bar graph at the bottom of KHQ’s coverage of the debate. Viewers saw what the group was thinking as the candidates fired their salvos and traded quips.

The video impact may not have been impressive to those at home, Reber admitted. The graph measured the total response of all 90 respondents and in most cases hovered around the neutral or lukewarm midpoint on the bar.

Viewers couldn’t see what Westbrook and others next to the studio computer saw – that separate bar charts for the women and men showed strong differences in opinion. Most of the night, women voted to the left side of the chart toward Dukakis. The collective male vote usually favored Bush.

The one time viewers saw an electronic “spike” – or sudden response – was when Dukakis made his remarks about abortion. Both men and women, according to the system, showed positive support for the governor.

For most of the debate, however, the electronic mood gauge remained near the middle of the chart. If the bar was a football field, most of the action took place between the 40-yard lines.

“We are probably the first station in the universe to give viewers the chance to see how this works,” Reber said. “It’s the first step in helping move this away from just a few people who decide how a debate turned out. Here we had 20 times that many people making their feelings known.

Westbrook, who’s been working on Tell-Back for more than 10 years, had only one disaster during the debate. Right before both candidates were making their concluding remarks, the station received a bomb threat. The station cleared the studio and viewers at home saw no response during Dukakis’ and Bush’s final statements.

“I’m sure the reason that happened,” Westbrook said, “is someone didn’t like the results. They were afraid of them.”

Otherwise, he was satisfied. “This was a great sample group. They were evenly split and really hadn’t made up their minds. And the bottom line is it showed people moving toward Dukakis.”

Reber added that KHQ received several calls Thursday night from viewers who said Tell-Back interfered with the event. About the same number according to Reber, thought the system added something valuable to the telecast.

The 90 members of the test group were chosen at random by a Spokane marketing firm. Each was paid $20 for participating.

Chung, after the debate, said NBC came to Spokane because it needed responses from ordinary citizens still trying to make up their minds.

“We’ve exhausted just about every other type of citizen feedback. This system was a different way to do that. What I tried to make clear in my report was that this was just 90 people in a community where people tend to split their votes between Democrats and Republicans.”

Chung’s report, however, was seen everywhere but in Spokane. Right after the debate, KHQ pre-empted the NBC post-debate coverage with its own 30-minute wrap-up.

Friday, October 14, 1988

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From → KHQ

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