Perhaps the most frustrating staple of post-debate network news coverage is that all-too-familiar battleground state focus group, the 20 or so "undecided" or "persuadable" voters sitting -- perhaps locked -- in a sterile room, their fingers fatigued from operating reaction dials for 90 minutes straight.
At some point in the post-debate glow, an anchor will throw to a reporter in this room, who will then query the all-American guests on their astute observations. But if ever a public forum needed follow-up questions, THIS IS THE PLACE.
Some pundits respond only to the Presidential debates occurring in their heads, not to the ones occurring in reality. Cribbing that approach, I offer up this post-debate focus group scenario as it might tellingly go...
WOLF: We now send it to Soledad O'Brien with our focus group in the Battleground State.
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: Hey Wolf, Anderson, David, Suzanne, Alex, Paul, James, Campbell, John, Jeffrey...
WOLF: Your red light is flashing, Soledad. Better get on with it so I have time to promote tonight's Larry King.
Soledad turns to the collected citizens
SOLEDAD: Okay folks, there are 25 of you here. Raise your hand if you thought Senator McCain won the debate...okay that's about 16. Now raise your hand if you thought Senator Obama won the debate...okay, that's about 18. So Wolf, it's about split down the middle, kinda, sorta...
WOLF: I'm no mathematician, Soledad, but how could 34 hands go up from 25 people?
SOLEDAD: I'm no mathematician, Wolf, so let's dig a little deeper...
Soledad forces a MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN to stand.
SOLEDAD: Ma'am, can you stand up and tell me your reaction to tonight's debate?
MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN: I just didn't get enough details from either candidate.
SOLEDAD: Details about....?
MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN: Just the details -- how they're really gonna do the things they say they're gonna do, and how it will affect me. I never hear that.
SOLEDAD: What kind of details would help?
MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN: Well, for starters, it'd be helpful for them to talk about my job, or my name.
SOLEDAD: You want them to say your name?
MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN: That would tell me they're really concerned about me, in a detailed way. The only names I ever hear are Fannie and Freddie, whoever they are.
SOLEDAD (to Wolf): Wolf, these people are telling me they need to hear more details. And their names.
Soledad forces a YOUNG MAN to rise.
SOLEDAD: Sir, did you get enough details?
YOUNG MAN: No, certainly not. I needed to hear more about how they're going to handle taxes and that bailout thingee.
SOLEDAD: Well, Obama plans to cut taxes for people making less than $250,000, and McCain wants the treasury to buy Americans' bad mortgages. That's not specific enough for you?
YOUNG MAN: That sounds pretty specific.
SOLEDAD: Well, that's what they said. Over and over in fact.
YOUNG MAN: Ummmm....I didn't really hear that. I think my dial wasn't working, and I was banging it against my knee...
SOLEDAD (to the group): How many people here went to the candidates' websites to learn more details about their plans, or read an entire newspaper or magazine report about the candidates, beginning to end?
No one raises a hand.
An ELDERLY WOMAN in the back suddenly raises her hand. Sitting next to her is her ELDERLY HUSBAND wearing a hearing aide.
SOLEDAD: Yes, Ma'am. You in the back.
ELDERLY WOMAN: (holding up her dial): I thought this was a remote control. No wonder I couldn't change the channel to CSI.
ELDERLY HUSBAND: I assumed it adjusted the volume. But when I turned it up they never got louder, just more boring.
Soledad quickly leaves them and forces a BALD MAN with a cane to stand. The man reaches out for his cane as he rises, but it falls to the floor and now Soledad has to hold him up.
SOLEDAD: Sir, what did you make of the debate?
BALD MAN: I didn't like the way they were constantly attacking each other, instead of explaining themselves. That negative stuff turns me off.
Several of the assembled guests nod in agreement.
SOLEDAD: And who will you be voting for?
BALD MAN: John McCain, because he says this is no time for on-the-job training or someone who pals around with terrorists
SOLEDAD: But isn't that an attack on Obama?
BALD MAN: Yes, it sure is.
Soledad looks at the bald man in confusion, but she can't hold him up anymore and he just sits down.
SOLEDAD (to the audience): Okay, last show of hands: How many of you were formerly undecided but now lean toward or away from a candidate about whom you've decided that you're no longer undecided?
The audience looks confused. One MIDDLE-AGED MAN raises his hand.
SOLEDAD: Sir, are you formerly decided but now lean toward or away from a candidate about whom you've decided that you're no longer undecided?
MIDDLE-AGED MAN: I just need to go to the bathroom. It's been nearly two hours and you told us we couldn't leave.
SOLEDAD: Well, it's not like we gave you anything to drink...
WOLF (interrupting): Soledad, VERY VERY interesting insight from out there in the Swing State. Anderson, don't you think that was interesting insight?
ANDERSON: I'm no mathematician. Back to you, David Gergen.
DAVID: Me neither. Over to you, John King.
JOHN: Let's see what Candy Crowley has to say. Over to you, Candy...wait, there's a commercial. More insight after the break from the best politic---
SOLEDAD'S VOICE: Can I leave? Can I finally leave now? These people frighten me.
JOHN: Your mike is live, Soledad... We'll be right back with more impulsive poll figures, more pundits punditing, more of David Gergen's somber analysis, more of my strong two-handed gesturing and interactive map skills, and more amazing insight from our swing state focus group.
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