How Presidential Debates Work

Technology and the Presidential Debate
Sen. John McCain is quizzed during the MTV/MySpace presidential town hall forum in December 2007.
Sen. John McCain is quizzed during the MTV/MySpace presidential town hall forum in December 2007.
Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Presidential campaigns managing debates from the primaries to Election Day later moved to wrestle control of debates from an open format that afforded candid insight into the candidates. Presidential debates would become "wooden and unfocused" [source: New York Times]. But after a couple decades, technology would intercede 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 e-mail. 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 140 characters, so responses were forced to be concise and to the point [source: Personal Democracy Forum].

The insinuation of technology into the 2008 race had the feeling of a society learning to apply its new tools to an old institution. Twitter, YouTube and MySpace all made appearances in unofficial debates; the 2008 presidential debates followed CPD standards. Old and new are butting heads, with the Commission on Presidential Debates and new media vying for transparency or control of debates. 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 new technology to their own ends. No matter what the result of this contention, 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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