How Presidential Debates Work

Technology and the Presidential Debate

Presidential campaigns managing debates from the primaries to Election Day later moved to wrestle control of them, moving from an open format that afforded candid insight into the candidates and causing them to become wooden and unfocused. But after a couple decades, technology interceded to change the rules of debate, as it had in 1960.

In the 2008 presidential primaries, CNN hosted two debates for both Democrat and Republican candidates using questions submitted by voters via YouTube. While the format was a groundbreaking one, it was widely criticized. Some critics questioned why YouTube and CNN didn't allow YouTube viewers to choose which video questions candidates would answer. Still, the shared billing of the media (CNN) with new media (YouTube) was an undeniable indicator that technology was making a comeback at influencing presidential politics through debate. "We think that politics will never be the same (thankfully)," wrote Steve Grove, the head of news and politics for YouTube after the debates [source: Official Google Blog].


YouTube wasn't the only new media kid on the block that made a showing in the 2008 race. MySpace and MTV joined forces to host a series of town hall forums. The forums had only one candidate at a time, with viewers submitting questions through instant messaging and email. The format was well-received by tech wonks; the real-time questions were chosen live by the moderator. The candidates were rated by viewers, with the results posted simultaneously on MySpace and the MTV broadcast [source: Wired].

The social networking service Twitter also turned up in 2008. Official surrogates for Barack Obama and John McCain responded to questions from Time magazine's Ana Marie Cox via text messaging. By signing up to receive tweets from the moderator and the responses from the candidates' representatives, anyone with a cell phone could tune in. The Twitter format allows for no more than 280 characters, so responses were forced to be concise and to the point.

By 2012, the public was watching the presidential debates on television while simultaneously following commentary on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. But a subsequent study found that viewers doing such multitasking learned less about the candidates than those focused strictly on watching the debates. More intriguing, the social media multitaskers were more likely to miss information favorable to their preferred candidate. "Those who favored Obama tended to learn less about Obama, and those who favored Romney tended to learn less about Romney than the candidates' supporters who were watching the debate but not following social media," the author of the study said [source: Annenberg Public Policy Center].

Today, most people get their news through social media as opposed to television or print. And that includes news about the presidential debates. So before debating, presidential candidates prepare zingy one-liners that they can hopefully deliver, and which will be instantly and extensively tweeted, shared and discussed on social media [source: Pfeiffer]. Yet paradoxically, the public is also tiring of political posts. Two months before the 2020 presidential election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, a survey found 55 percent of adult social media users were "worn out" by the excessive number of political posts and discussions, an 18-point hike since the question was asked in the summer before the 2016 contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton [source: Anderson and Auxier].

In 2020, people will increasingly be watching the debates over a streaming service as opposed to a broadcast or cable channel. YouTube statistics from the 2016 presidential debates found that the average YouTube viewer watched the three debates for 22 minutes. (Each debate is normally 90 minutes.) Whether social media or streaming changes the presidential debates format remains to be seen. Either technology will emerge as the victor, creating more transparency in the political process, or the major parties will figure out a way to exploit the new technology to their own ends. No matter the result, presidential debates will remain part of the presidential process. They've become an American tradition, one that may evolve but will always remain.

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