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Four Ways to Improve Tech-Driven Presidential Debates

Here's how to make plugged-in political debates live up to their democratic promise.

In the first U.S. presidential primary debate, Democratic candidates Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen battled it out on the radio on the eve of the 1948 Oregon primary. The technology changed remarkably little in the 60 years between then and the 2008 presidential race, when the Democratic field gathered for the first-ever YouTube debate. On that occasion, an animated snowman made history by asking, "As president, what will you do to ensure that my son will live a full and happy life?"

As another presidential cycle heats up, there’s renewed hope that a tech-savvy, networked electorate is poised to wrest control of the debates from the campaign-messaging machine. But four years later, can we do better than the animated snowman?

Tonight in Orlando, we'll certainly try. Google has partnered with Fox News, as well as the Florida GOP, for the latest in a string of Republican debates. The public has again been invited post questions to YouTube—more than 17,000 have been collected thus far, some of which moderator Brett Baier will put to Romney, Perry, Bachmann, and the other Republicans on stage. In an upgrade from the '08 race, Google will be using Moderator, its digital tool for letting citizens vote questions up or down, in theory helping the best queries bubble to the top. "We'll use Google's public data and search trends on air to give greater context," Google also announced.

"As long as it makes it more interesting and engaging, it's a good thing," says Josh Tauberer, co-founder of the crowd-sourced legislative site PopVox. "But certainly no one should claim, or believe, that the debates are any more democratic because of it."

So far, letting plugged-in voters question candidates directly has been a mixed bag. In June's GOP debate in Manchester, precious airtime was consumed by generic questions from voters at linked watch parties. "I'd like to know how they plan on returning manufacturing jobs to the United States," went one. The candidates easily batted them away with talking points. (Hint: Candidates love a question they can answer by recalling a line or two from their stump speech.)

But some questions were more creative. During a CNN-Tea Party debate earlier this month, an activist from Jacksonville posed a primary-politics question that was far savvier than the moderator, Wolf Blitzer, could likely get away with. "How will you convince senior citizens that Social Security and Medicare need to be changed and get their vote?" The question's internal conflict was promising. Still, the candidates punted. And Blitzer let them.

Prime-time televised debates are designed to catch mildly interested voters as they go about their lives. (The Tea Party debate, Perry's debut, garnered 5.4 million viewers. Not bad, really. But a little perspective is in order: Ashton Kutcher's Two and a Half Men debut attracted 28 million.) Pulling average folks into the nominating process is one way to attract eyeballs. "Basically, we bring the American people," YouTube's Steve Grove has said. Indeed, there's something democracy-affirming in seeing Donna from Des Moines ask Mitt Romney a tough one. The risk, though, is that we end up with participation theater that eventually makes people more cynical about picking a president, not less.

How can we make the networked political debate live up to its democratic promise?

Mine the niches. If there’s anything the internet is good at, it’s fostering obsessiveness. Moderators should tap in. After President Obama's "Arab Spring" speech in May, NPR's social media lead Andy Carvin (who’s known on Twitter as an avid follower of Mideast politics) and Foreign Policy blogger Marc Lynch were invited to the White House to facilitate a Twitter-driven "world-wide conversation" with Obama advisor Ben Rhodes. Thousands sent in #MEspeech tweets. Hunched over their laptops, experts Carvin and Lynch used the collective Twitter brain to ask informed, probing questions on U.S. engagement in Yemen, the future of Bahrain, military trials in Egypt, and more. The invested audience made Carvin and Lynch even sharper, arming them with follow-ups. You almost felt bad for Rhodes.

Imagine candidates having to do the same in the face of online audiences made up of all sorts of demographics -- soldiers, gay people, the jobless. Coordinating all that tweet action is no easy feat. But it's probably time to end the myth that Wolf Blitzer's brain can go it alone against the Republican field. Moderators gets help beforehand. A team of real-time social media curators could make them smarter, and, in turn, us smarter, too.

Survey the masses. Professor William Benoit, an expert on political campaign communications at Ohio University, argues that moderators like Blitzer and King often use the video 'voices of the people' simply to ask what they want to ask. Better, he tells me, is surveying the public to get a refined sense of their interests. "It would be very easy," says Benoit, "to make sure that there are five questions on a topic that polls at 46 percent and only two on the issue that came in at 12 percent."

Here, the White House is an example of what not to do. In July, Twitter chairman Jack Dorsey moderated a tweet-powered "town hall" session with Obama. What wasn't clear was how the questions given to Obama were plucked from the stream—or why Dorsey was the one asking them. Plus, questions from Speaker John Boehner and The New York Times' Nick Kristof—two men not lacking public platforms—crowded out others. The whole event seemed designed to give the San Francisco-based tech company and the Obama White House loads of good PR with minimal risk. Which leads directly to another suggestion...

Make the rules transparent. "If there's a real culprit," argues Tim Tagaris, Chris Dodd's '08 internet director, "it's the campaigns themselves who attempt to mitigate the potential downside ahead of time by negotiating ridiculous rules, like that the candidates aren't supposed to address each other." In primary season, these arrangements are often allowed to stay hidden. Who, for example, is picking the questions tonight? Fox News? The multibillion-dollar tech company Google Inc.? Who decides what data we’ll see up on screen? Right now, we know so little. Google lowered a cone of silence before tonight’s debate. Clearly, organizing the world's information has its limits.

Remove time restrictions and put it all online. Tauberer, for one, has a radical idea for shifting the nature of debates: let them run for hours off-air, only televise an edited-down version, and then make use of the web by posting the full thing in searchable form. Bonus: People interested in 'fringe' candidates (paging Gary Johnson) can delve into the ideas put forth by their man or woman. And all voters would have meatier content to feast upon, fact check, amplify, or denounce.

Sure, it might make the grind of becoming a party's presidential nominee less pleasant for the candidates. But nobody said that the internet was a safe space. And raising the stakes can be clarifying. Way back in the pre-internet age of 1948, Thomas Dewey's candidacy looked doomed. Then he won the debate, the Oregon primary, and eventually the Republican nomination. Of course, he ended up the subject of the Chicago Tribune's famously botched headline, "Dewey Defeats Truman." But hey, that was before we could Google these things.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user fredthompson.

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