The 2008 presidential campaigns have already been notable for several “firsts” in their use of technology, and on Monday a new one was added to the list when Yahoo, Slate and The Huffington Post announced they will host the first-ever online-only debates this fall.
PBS host Charlie Rose will moderate the two debates — one for the Democratic contenders and another for Republicans — both of which will take place after Labor Day. Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean will give opening remarks at the Democratic online event.
“We intend for these debates to be a groundbreaking mix of old and new traditions in politics,” said Rose. “2008 will be a momentous year for the electoral process in America, thanks in large part to technology and politics connecting like never before. I am proud to host the first-ever online-only debate, which will reach and engage the voting audience in a whole new way.”
Voters Ask the Questions
The debates will be hosted on all three participating Web sites — Yahoo, Slate and The Huffington Post — and voters will have the opportunity to ask the candidates questions directly, to participate in the debate in real-time and even to determine which candidate is giving the best performance.
“With presidential candidates announcing online and with campaign ads and fund-raising increasingly online, presidential campaigns are moving to the Internet at breakneck speed. Online debates are the inevitable next step,” said Arianna Huffington, cofounder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post.
“We’re opening the doors of democracy for American voters to participate in the presidential debates like never before,” said Scott Moore, head of news and information for Yahoo. “Armchair politics will take on new meaning this election season, as we’re offering voters the opportunity to ask the candidates what’s on their mind.”
The debates will feature real-time questions sent in by the online audience, as well as viewer questions uploaded on video. Candidates who have formally announced they are competing will be invited to attend from any location they choose.
No dates have yet been set, but if the scheduling makes it possible, “We have every intention of participating,” Eric Carbone, director of Internet operations for the Joe Biden campaign, told TechNewsWorld. “We’re convinced the online medium is a way for every candidate to get their message out, and are thrilled we’re starting to see the technology used in this way.”
That Was Then …
The nature of the political debate underwent a transformation in 1960, when presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon went head-to-head on television for the first time.
“With television, Nixon looked old and slow, while Kennedy looked composed, young and fabulous,” Julie Barko Germany, deputy director for the Institute for Politics Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University, told TechNewsWorld. “The rest is history.”
This year’s shift to an online forum has the potential to be just as momentous, particularly for the way it will give ordinary citizens the ability to participate directly.
This Is Now
“I think it’s a great example of using technology in a way that allows regular people to ask questions,” Germany said.
Until now, only those physically present at debates had the opportunity to ask questions, she added, and that was a matter of going through security and being screened beforehand. “This makes it a lot more accessible.”
Indeed, “This shows that the presidential candidates understand that Internet-based media are becoming as important as broadcast media in terms of reaching voters and influencing public opinion,” Micah Sifry, executive editor of the Personal Democracy Forum, told TechNewsWorld.
A challenge for the hosts of the online debates will to be to make full use of the capabilities of the medium, Sifry added. “Will these Web sites figure out how to reinvent the presidential debate for the Web, not only by integrating viewer questions but also by including live feedback?” he said. “That would be a real breakthrough.”
Of course, how well the candidates survive the transition online remains to be seen.
“A lot of what comes across well on TV, including canned language that has been highly polished, doesn’t come off as well online, and can seem insincere,” Germany said. “This will be a test to see how well the candidates can speak in this new medium.”