Debate watching serves different goals for campaigns and constituents

October 3, 2012

“This is the first presidential election in which social media will play a mainstream role, and it's important to remember not everything is as it seems online,” wrote Bob Sullivan for NBC news. Sullivan goes on to argue that campaigns are using social media to their advantage, and sometimes, to the disadvantage of other campaigns, creating a Wild West of internet campaigning.

Sullivan's not wrong; this is the first election when a social media site like Twitter has been as ubiquitous, taken as seriously, and embedded as deeply into everyday life as it is now. That change means the campaigns are trying desperately to use social media to its fullest advantage. But the people who have the most to gain from social media aren't the potential elected officials -- they're the constituents.

As we head into the first Presidential Debate Tuesday evening (Topic: domestic policy. Host: Jim Lehrer. Location: University of Denver.), there's no better example of this than the changing role of the debate watching party. There was a time when debate parties dominated the experience for those who were politically involved, a chance to break bread, drink a little too much wine, and watch a different kind of sporting event.

Follow along as WBEZ live tweets the debates, and join our live chat with the hashtag #bezdebates.

And a quick search on Facebook indicates that debate parties haven't gone away; there are parties being hosted by bars and restaurants, parties being hosted by college groups and parties being hosted by, most interestingly, the parties themselves.

Political parties have organized debate watch, convention watch, election night parties for ages, so this isn't new. In researching for this piece, I found what appears to be some old, now defunct webpages for Obama for America-hosted debate watching parties from 2008, as well as a handy "Debate Watching Guide" for hosts of said parties. In the latter, the campaign admits the importance -- to them -- of the debates as a time to sway voters.

"Debate Watch Parties are a great way to familiarize yourself and others with Barack Obama's policies, and plan for upcoming activities," they write. "With just a few weeks left before Election Day, it's crucial that we make the most of this opportunity to have Barack's message of change heard by as many people as possible - both during the debate and in the days that follow."

A first glance at the homepage of President Obama's website indicates that these watch parties are still an important part of their strategy to win on election day. However, a glance at Governor Romney's shows not one indication that the debates begin Tuesday.

This matches with what Politico reported several days ago: the Obama campaign is busy organizing 3,200 debate watching parties around the country.

The Republican party is organizing events that, at first glance, appear similar: The Romney campaign has planned an event in Joliet where, for $15, you can talk with Illinois State Treasurer Dan Rutherford, Senator Sue Rezin and Representative Pam Roth. They're also promoting the opportunity, on Twitter and Facebook, to win a chance to watch the debates with the campaign staff. 

These strategies say a great deal about the type of campaign strategy these two potential leaders are running: while the President is trying to put the power in the hands of the voters themselves to get excited about voting, Governor Romney's strategy is to amp people up with opportunities to get close to their leaders. One is large scale and amorphous; the other is specific and less widespread.

But where will people really be? According to David Talbot of Technology Review, one place is for sure: online, which means the President, with his highly engaged, liberal following, has the advantage, at least in that venue. A Pew Study about the 2008 election indicated that 46 percent of Americans "used the internet, email or cell phone text messaging to get news about the campaign, share their views and mobilize others" -- we know that number is much higher now.

Anecdotally, there is perhaps less excitement surrounding this election. Americans have an incumbent president, who they're familiar with, and of whom many have mentioned the "hope" is less than burning for. But the one thing the campaigns do have is a whole new generation of politically engaged voters who are particularly engaged in social media, so the engagement will likely look higher. As seen during the conventions, Twitter is likely to skyrocket with usage during the four presidential and vice presidential debates In 2008, Twitter debate was considered novel. Now these technologies are combined into our daily lives. If watch parties are hyperlocal engagement, Twitter makes it global. 

And it's giving the power to the voters in a new way. As much as Obama and Romney try to use the power of debate watching parties, it's only in response to the fact that they can't control where the real comments will be made: on social media. Which is really the ultimate tease; they can see them, but they can't be heard in response.

Though in 2008 the debates used Twitter as a way to crowdsource what people at home were saying, it doesn't look as though they are planning to this time around (to the chagrin of some), as Bill Wheatley, former debate producer, noted in an interview with Nieman Lab. "As far as I can tell, there is no social media direct component here," he said. "I do think it’s important that, as part of this process, questions from citizens be included. The question is: What’s the most effective and responsible way to do that? At the very least, people should be permitted to send questions to the moderators."

And looking back, even in 2008, that was the goal. Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, which looks at how technology and politics intersect, told NPR then that the internet was "going to do more than just change politics. I think it's going to change democracy. And there's the potential of the Internet to be used in a way that makes being involved in civic life and in politics, to be involved in the process of governing, a much more relevant activity, less abstract for the average American."

So where will the people be? Though the Obama campaign hopes they'll be at debate watching parties, and the Romney campaign looks to some special events, either way, they'll be online.