News Column

Presidential Debates in the Social Media Era

September 29, 2012

Matt Soergel

The time was, you watched the presidential debates and then listened to talking heads, groups of undecided voters and newspaper columnists tell you who won and what the high and low points were. Oh, and somewhere in there you made up your own mind.

This time around, add a powerful new tool: Twitter, along with other social media.

If there's a game-changing moment -- a gaffe or a home run -- you'll know it right away. The tweets and re-tweets will pile up, and those who watch them, who measure them, can point to them and say: There. Right there.

That worked. Or that was a disaster. This is where it got boring. This is where it got good.

It's not just one tweeter tweeting another, or tweeting to thousands. It's the cumulative power of those tweets, which then helps shape the narrative of what happened at the presidential or vice-presidential debate.

That starts even before the TV pundits give their spin, and well before talk-show hosts and "Saturday Night Live" put their stamps on the events.

"Now it's not just the experts telling us what was and what wasn't important," said Brian Houston, a University of Missouri professor involved in a Twitter project between the Times-Union and the university's journalism school.

"It's now the sum of all our voices. Those of us who are engaged, we can all contribute our small chit. It's empowering, and changes the landscape."

After all, the debates are more than about what happens under the lights, said John Delaney, one-time Jacksonville mayor, now University of North Florida president.

It's what's said about them in the hours and days after the debate, where opinions solidify, where conventional wisdom becomes, well, conventional.

Delaney is a debate veteran, going all the way back to his time as co-captain of the Terry Parker High debate team, which led to several college debate scholarship offers.

He knows the pressure President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney face, and he knows their greatest fear: the gaffe.

"One line can lose an election," he said.

Sometimes it's not even something you say: It could be a sick Richard Nixon, sweating on TV, or George H.W. Bush checking his watch, or Al Gore sighing in exasperation. No wonder the candidates sometimes seem so stiff, so scripted, so quick to duck a question and head to their stump speech.

Even so, the debates still matter, even in these partisan times.

"Many have made up minds, but these will also confirm the decision for a lot of people, and that means they will actually show up at the polls if they get excited about the outcome," said Stephen Baker, a political science professor at Jacksonville University.

By now, the candidates have tried to tried to lower expectations, have prepped their numbers, prepared their jabs.

Expect them to carefully circle each other in the first debate, like boxers measuring each other in the ring. By the third debate, expect more sharp jabs, particularly if polls are looking gloomy for one of them. You might get some desperate swings then, Baker said.

So what do the candidates hope to achieve, to move the Twitterverse and public, the pundits and comedy shows in their direction?

Michael Binder, a political science professor at UNF, said Romney has some image building to do, to counteract depictions of being an out-of-touch rich guy.

"As long as he doesn't come across as Mr. Burns from 'The Simpsons,' " he said. "But at the same time he's not in the position where he can just hold serve and win. He needs to not just get by; he needs to connect with those folks who just haven't made up their minds."

The Obama campaign has its own objectives. "They need to convince voters that, yeah, things aren't great, but they're headed in the right direction, we're making progress," said Binder. "If you can get the voters to buy into that ..."

Of course, expect Romney to hammer Obama on the economy, while Obama knocks Romney for catering to the rich, Binder said.

While doing that, though, each will somehow want to appear serious and presidential. And while it's perhaps not the best way to choose a candidate, they each want to achieve that magic word: likability.

"On the presidential level, I think the sunnier candidate always wins, the more positive one," Delaney said.

Voters are looking not just for a candidate with policies they favor, Binder said, but also one they can be enthusiastic about as a person. As someone they actually like.

That can be tough, given the pressure and expectations of a presidential debate.

"This is what the consultants have told me," Baker said, "that you need to be very vague and to spend more time talking about how awful your opponent would be. The candidates are going to resist being forced to answer tough questions."

So why watch? "The real purpose is that you get to see the candidates under pressure, how they operate, the body language," Baker said.

It's kind of a shame, though, he said. "They're both extremely intelligent guys. I think it's unfortunate that the race has become so devolved to the sound-bite approach."

Then Baker indulges in some wishful thinking. "If there weren't an election involved, they could have a really interesting discussion."



Source: (c) 2012 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) Distributed by MCT Information Services