Thursday, October 16, 2008

Gender lines diverge during debate

If you were tuned in to the CNN broadcast of Wednesday’s debate, you may have been mesmerized by two horizontal lines threading along the bottom of the screen. They wove up and down and crisscrossed each other as Barack Obama and John McCain parried about taxes, abortion and some plumber named “Joe.”

The lines charted the live results of “dial polling” of a small sample of undecided voters in Ohio, an important swing state. The group was registering its real time reactions to the two candidates.

One graph line was for men; the other for women — just like rest rooms and deodorants.

Why CNN decided to divide the results by gender is beyond me. Why not by income? How were the rich reacting compared to the poor or the middle class (whoever they are)? How about blacks and whites? How about gays and straights? How about first born and others? Blue eyes versus brown eyes?

Never mind. In its unfathomable wisdom, CNN had the poll track the reactions of men versus women.

The display called for visual multi-tasking. I’m told the young are much better at this sort of thing than the rest of us. They think nothing of listening to and watching the candidates while they monitor dial polling threads racing across the bottom of the screen. If that wasn’t enough, the changing scores of six debate judges framed the whole thing.

Those of us who surrendered to the multimedia show noticed the curious interplay between the debate and the instant assessment of the Ohio dialers.

The most striking was that regardless of what was being said, women favored Obama and men favored McCain. I thought immediately of one of my favorite media literacy principles: “No two people experience a media message in the same way.”

The lines told me that gender is a significant contributor to perception when it comes to Obama and McCain.

The dialers didn’t seem to be reacting to what each candidate was saying, although certain words like “education” and “children” registered spikes on the moving graph lines. Political consultants (vis Frank Lutz) have made fortunes studying such charged words and how to manipulate them.

No, visual messages dominated perceptions. Whenever a candidate looked directly into the camera and not at the moderator, the lines rose. Viewers like their politicians to look at them directly. Of course, Obama and McCain weren’t looking at the public at all. They were staring into the impersonal camera.

My strong feeling was that the men and women reacted differently to the candidates’ “chemistry,” not their words. Men liked McCain (veteran, aggressive, impulsive, white and “hot” in a McLuhanesque way. Women clearly liked Obama (young, calm, thoughtful, black and “cool”)

The male reaction is easier to explain. McCain displays stereotypical male traits. He gets the testosterone flowing.

As a man, I have more trouble explaining why Obama appeals more to women except to say that McCain doesn’t.

And why is that? Here’s a wild guess: They don’t trust him. Probably at a visceral level.

Even more wild speculation: It has to do with his elevation of a woman so ill equipped to be president. Rather than honoring women with his choice, he has betrayed them.

Sarah Palin was the ghost haunting the Hofstra University gymnasium on Wednesday night. Obama tip-toed around her, saying that he would leave it to the voters to judge her. McCain, against all reason and evidence, draped her with garlands and plastered her with gold stars. It was a very masculine thing to do. It was also a sham that women immediately picked up on — and resented.

The lines on the screen told the tale.

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