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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

YouTube/CNN Debate: Was the Medium the Message?

Last night’s Democratic presidential debate, sponsored by YouTube and CNN, has become an instant legend, with the most frequent comment being that future debates will never be the same. In case you missed it, the debate was organized around thirty-nine YouTube videos posing questions (culled from over 3,000 submissions) to particular or all candidates, with moderator Anderson Cooper occasionally supplying follow-ups.
The most obviously different thing about the format was that the questions were not framed in the ostensibly objective voice of journalism. While a few questioners adopted the Concerned Citizen tone of pre-selected Real People at campaign events, most took a very personal approach. There was lots of humor (singing questions, faux rednecks, and one representative of the “snowman community”) and drama (a man sitting in front of the burial flags of three family members, a cancer victim removing her wig, a question sent from a refugee camp in Darfur). And more generally, the questioners were as complicated as the electorate itself, reflecting very different political perspectives (frustrated base voter, disengaged cynic, earnest swing voter) and levels of knowledge.
You do have to wonder, however, if the positive reaction to the debate among journalists and bloggers is mainly about its sheer entertainment value, particularly for political junkie viewers who have come to loath candidate debates. I mean, it’s nice if this debate was a lot more fun to watch, and maybe that will eventually help engage voters, but it’s not necessarily grounds for widespread civic celebration. Moreoever, the apparent spontaneity of the event was partially artificial, given CNN’s role in selecting and ordering questions. And as in all recent debates, the need to spread questions among the candidates produced some serious distortions and reduced opportunities for candidate interaction. (I’m sure I’m not the only Democrat who’s fed up with the endless whining for equal time by Mike Gravel, whose Potemkin Village campaign is entirely composed of his opportunities to be the Angry Man of the debates).
With these reservations, however, the YouTube format did have some important and arguably positive effects on the informational value of the debate. For one thing, the personalization of the questions made them harder to dodge or deflect. One of the most dramatic moments of the debate came when John Edwards had to explain his position of “personally” opposing gay marriage on religious grounds while supporting civil unions. I’ve heard him do this many times, very fluidly. But last night, his answer was preceded by videos of two lesbians plaintively asking if the candidates would let them get married, and then an African-American minister specificially asking Edwards if religion is ever a legitimate reason for tolerating discrimination. Whatever you think of Edwards’ response–and some observers thought it was very effective–it was telling that the Joe DiMaggio of Trial Lawyers visibly struggled with the question.
More generally, the video questions, whether earnest or humorous, inevitably made it more noticable when candidates utilized their decades of “flag-and-bridge” training to quickly shift into their pre-ordained campaign messages. In traditional debates, the dynamic is often one of the men-in-suits on the stage trying to outwit the men-in-suits asking questions; it sounds and feels quite different when the questions are framed by wary citizens seeking a straight answer. For the same reason, candidate use of insider and legislative language was more jarring and unappealing in this format, which I’m sure the handlers of Senators Biden and Dodd noticed to their chagrin.
Yet another unusual feature of the debate was CNN’s decision to let each campaign screen its own YouTube video. Some simply cut-and-pasted campaign ads; others tried hard to get edgy, reflecting different levels of commitment to the New Social Media trend. (HRC’s campaign actually posted a video on YouTube during the debate, featuring her exchange with Obama over presidential negotiations with famous dictators).
One of the imponderables is whether the format leads to different assessments of candidate performances by junkies and pundits on the one hand and actual voters on the other. I’ve certainly read enough Drew Westen by now to understand that the College Debate Model of “scoring” candidate interactions may have little to do with their actual impact. And we got a glimpse of that disconnect last night. Immediately after the debate ended, and even before the self-congratulatory talk about CNN’s genius in partnering with YouTube, CNN’s commentators highlighted the Clinton-Obama negotiations exchange as the Big Moment (reflecting the belief that it showed HRC’s savvy and Obama’s inexperience, a big campaign talking point for Hillaryland). Seconds later, a CNN analyst called the debate’s real story “Gladys Knight and the Pips,” reflecting HRC’s total domination. Then next thing you knew, a CNN-sponsored focus group of undecided Democrats in New Hampshire declared Obama the overall debate winner.
MSM perceptions, of course, do influence public perceptions, so we may have to wait a while to see who was right. And we’ll also have to wait til September to watch the Republican candidates deal with the same format.
But for now, it looks like the Medium was the Message last night, with the candidates learning another lesson in the difficulty of holding onto the stage in the New Media era.

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