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Guest Commentary: A Little Bit of Magic Brings Election Home

Apr 20, 2008  •  Post A Comment

I was in the back seat of a taxi in New Orleans as the rain poured down one minute and the sun shone the next. The driver’s repeated glances in the rear-view mirror told me she watched the news every now and then.
“My family is from Spartanburg and we were hollering when you called it up on that map,” she said.
The level of detail that came next had me shaking my head in amazement. “I’m a Democrat but I liked that preacher Republican.” She went on about the political dichotomy in the area between white evangelicals and African Americans. She also recalled my “stretching out the state with your hands” and “using all those colors to show how the actor guy did him in. That looks fun.”
It is fun.
And innovative. And informative. And perhaps most important of all, accessible and understandable to the people CNN serves.
What my driver was remembering was the night of the South Carolina primary. I had used the “Magic Wall” to illustrate what I called the “Thompson Effect.” Former Sen. Fred Thompson split the evangelical vote in South Carolina’s Bible Belt with that “preacher Republican”—former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. That allowed Sen. John McCain to eke out a victory that put him on the path to the Republican presidential nomination.
I am an old AP wire guy. Twelve years in print journalism still outnumber my nearly 11 in television, and I am by training a guy who isn’t always comfortable with some of the bells and whistles of TV news.
So I was a little dubious the night of the New Hampshire primary when I was first asked to use our Magic Wall, officially called the CNN multi-touch and created by the remarkable people at a company called Perceptive Pixel.
But reaction from viewers as I travel the country covering the presidential race reinforces my sense that it is a wonderful tool to help make an exciting and unpredictable campaign—and its shifting geography, demographics and delegate math—more understandable.
In my first presidential campaign, in 1988, the new “must have” was one of those big first-issue Motorola cellular phones, literally the size of a shoe. Now in my sixth campaign, with a finger or two I can access election results in any county in America, compare what is happening now to what happened in elections past, project the delegate chase through any imaginable scenario, and so much more.
How is it that Sen. Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire despite polls showing a double-digit lead for Sen. Barack Obama? Zoom in on gritty Manchester, and show the numbers proving her campaign was more aggressive, and more successful, in identifying its voters and getting them to turn out.
So if she wins Pennsylvania 55-45, what happens in the delegate chase? What if it is 65-35? Or 53-47? A few taps and finger clicks and we can crunch the numbers.
The “Google Maps” option allows us to show local landmarks or to zoom in on the Cleveland polling locations that were ordered left open for additional time because of ballot shortages and long lines.
It’s fun to navigate the Magic Wall, to learn more about its capabilities and to add data or wrinkles to programs in order to adapt to this remarkable campaign.
We have it as an asset in our coverage thanks to the curiosity of David Bohrman, who has a fancy title on his business card including CNN Washington bureau chief but is probably better described as part news junkie, part curious kid.
He “discovered” it wandering a military trade show, and immediately saw its potential to take the viewer closer to the news and to deliver in a visual and more accessible way statistics and other data that are critical but can be hard to digest.
He didn’t know we would have a race that reshaped the Republican Party or a once-in-a-lifetime protracted Democratic campaign.
It is fun to cover, and the stakes are enormous. Our challenge is to help our viewers navigate the calendar, the delegate count, the issues and the political geography of states and regions that can shift from town to town and week to week.
Pennsylvania, the next big showdown, is a test case of this remarkable political diversity. It’s fun to have a tool we believe helps bring people closer to the action.
John King, CNN’s chief national correspondent, has reported for CNN since 1997 and wrote for the Associated Press from 1985-97. He’ll be live on CNN with the Magic Wall beginning at 4 p.m. ET Tuesday.

17 Comments

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