The Democrats V. The Cheek of the American People


Last night’s CNN/YouTube debate marked the first sweeping change to the presidential debate formula since the first one aired in 1960. It brought the democratic candidates closer than ever to the American people - including the side of the American people that relished the chance to sass the would-be-president face-to-face. This mixture of public access and entitlement may have finally taken political debating off its high horse, and make it the entertaining spectacle we have come to demand of television.

Last night’s questions from the public reinforced how ardently the people care about the entertainment quality of politics - and in this heyday of celebrity reality shows, not even presidential candidates are above the line of fire. The videos played almost all included sarcasm, humor, and obvious bias. Often, the viewer-submitted questions were highly personal and emotional. No longer the one emotionless, respectful questioner laying out broad issues into which stump speeches and sound bites could be spaciously dropped.

All this made for a lively obstacle course through which candidates had to dance, and not all knew how to conquer the new territory. The candidates who came across best made concerted efforts to answer even the least substantial questions with relevant information, finding serious concern and intent behind cheeky YouTube aesthetics. They looped personal or pointed questions back into national issues. And of course, the candidates who bounced back with their own sense of humor came across best of all.

The fact is that up on the big screen, viewers were seeing the faces and hearing the accents of Americans who normally only make it onto the debating stage as distant percentages. Glowing above the debaters below, these images set the unspoken standard that candidates "keep it real." If television is the dominion of the thin and pretty, and politics the dominion of the powerful and white, than last night was a debate as visually revelatory as was Kennedy’s winning smile in 1960.

There are new strategies that candidates will have to master if viewer-submitted questions become the norm in televised debating. Given ABC’s announcement that they too plan to seek viewer-submitted questions for their primary debates, our candidates had best learn quickly.