Behind CNN’s Colored Lines: Q&A with SMU Public Opinion Researcher Dan Schill

This past October, we published a blog post on the work that Rita Kirk, Ph.D. and Dan Schill, Ph.D. have done using our Perception Analyzer dials in their role as political research consultants for CNN. The two Southern Methodist University (SMU) researchers are the brains behind CNN’s focus groups of undecided voters whose real-time reactions to what the candidates said were front-and-center in CNN’s live coverage of the Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates.


CNN’s Erin Burnett interviews focus group of undecided Colorado voters during CNN’s coverage of the first presidential debate. Image courtesy of CNN.

With the election now safely behind us, we were able to catch up with one of the SMU duo, Dan Schill, to reflect on his and Rita’s work with CNN and their experience with using the Perception Analyzer dials both in their CNN work and in additional research. Here are some highlights from our discussion:


Q: Can you talk about the methodology you use with CNN and the role that the Perception Analyzer dials play in it?

Dan: Through our research, Rita and I are interested in finding out how undecided voters respond to the candidates during the debates and how voters navigate through all the different messages they are exposed to during the debate process. The methodology we employ helps us determine which specific messages are and are not resonating with our test group—in the case of the CNN research, undecided voters. The Perception Analyzer technology plays a meaningful role through its ability to capture real-time, second-by-second responses from voters throughout the span of a 90-minute debate. The data from the dials allow us to identify and rank which issues are making an impact on voters and pushing opinion in either a positive or negative direction. And the ability to capture this information in real-time is a unique benefit of using the dials.

Q: How does your work with CNN fit into the bigger picture of the research your department does?

Dan: As political communications researchers, Dr. Kirk and I are interested in the impact political messages have on voters. We’re interested in understanding the larger role these messages play in helping voters form their opinions about candidates and how those messages and opinions impact their voting decisions. The work we’ve done with CNN, and in particular the Perception Analyzer dial research, gives us a very rich and detailed view into which arguments and which issues are most influencing voters. So, it’s a significant piece of the puzzle.

Q: What type of feedback have you received about your research?

Dan: Our focus group participants respond very positively to the dials and the testing experience. Many ask if they can come back and participate again. They tell us that they find the experience engaging and fun, and that they watch the debates more intently.

In the academic world, the work we’ve done with CNN has received a lot of interest and attention. The research has been profiled in The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Wall Street Journal as well as other outlets, and Rita and I have been asked repeatedly to present on this topic at research conferences and events. Like anything else, the public response to CNN’s coverage has been both positive and negative. As academic researchers, we are very open with how the research is done and how we believe the research adds to the political discussion by encouraging critical thinking about the messages and issues the candidates are debating.

Q: Have there been any recurring themes to the findings from the Perception Analyzer research with CNN?

Dan: Definitely. What we’ve seen on a consistent basis over time is that undecided voters want to hear positive, forward-looking policy proposals for how the candidates are going to improve the country and make their lives better. Voters don’t respond well to clichés, one-liners or personal attacks on other candidates. They tend to respond more positively to humor and to when a candidate directly answers the questions he/she receives.

Q: So, what’s the next step in this type of research for you and your team?

Dan: We’re interested in exploring ways to use technology to expand the scope of the dial testing. How can we best use the technology for information advocacy and how can we expand our scope to include voters from across the country? The technology continues to improve and we’re very excited about having the ability to include a much larger group of likely voters in the research. We’re also looking into ways of digging through the rich data to understand why a certain candidate won and why another did not, and what arguments and messages were critical to deciding an election.

Q: Are you using or do you have plans to use the Perception Analyzer dials or the CNN research results in other studies?

Dan: With the CNN studies, we’re able to go back and mine the research data for use in other political science projects for academic audiences. For example, the data from the CNN research was used in a paper we presented with some marketing professors on group contagion effect. The paper examined the real-time correlation between people sitting together in a room who are viewing an event. The dial research is certainly an interesting area for us and we are strong advocates for continued research in the academic community.


Good stuff. Thanks for your time Dan. You can keep up with Dan and Rita and get updates on the results of their research by following them on Twitter @RealTimePolitic. And you can find out more about Perception Analyzer on our Product page.