Paying attention to ‘Net politics

WASHINGTON -- Last month’s YouTube Democratic presidential debate, starring “Billiam the Snowman” and other Internet questioners, was just the beginning. In coming months, the candidates will become guinea pigs in a host of Web-based debating experiments—from “video mashups” to instant-message questioning—that will continue to transform how debates are produced and watched.

Months away from the first primaries and more than a year away from the presidential election, it isn’t clear how many voters will tune in for the online events. Online proponents argue that Internet debates, forums and other online outreach efforts at least give voters more opportunities to find out about candidates and their policy positions.

The next big online experiment comes next month, when Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and the other Democrats participate in a forum co-sponsored by Yahoo, online magazine Slate and blog Huffington Post. Each candidate will be interviewed separately, answering the same questions posed by PBS host Charlie Rose.

But it won’t be broadcast that way. Instead, viewers can mix the videos in any sequence they want. The “mashup” format allows viewers to turn the separate interviews into a kind of debate, by choosing among video snippets of the Democratic candidates answering the same questions and compare the answers back-to-back.

“The user will get to choose their path through the content,” says Scott Moore, Yahoo’s senior vice president of news and information. “It’s up to the consumers on how much they want to consume and how they consume it.”

The Internet influence on campaign debates sometimes gets ridiculed. One of the main Republican candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, declared the CNN/YouTube snowman debate undignified.

Sponsors of the experimental forums say the outlets can elevate the level of debate, providing new ways for voters around the country to get a more in-depth look at candidates on the issues than the 90-second format—or the “raise your hand” approach—of the main televised debates.

Online debates allow candidates “to go deeper into substantial explanation than you’d get on television with sound bites,” says Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, which has sponsored two online Democratic presidential town halls focusing on the Iraq war and energy policy and will sponsor a third this fall on health care.

In the MoveOn energy debate, for instance, Illinois Sen. Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards were asked about instituting an auction system for carbon-emission rights. Mr. Obama spent almost 2µ minutes—much longer than he would have had in a televised debate—explaining how he would tweak the current system to include auctions. Mr. Edwards spoke almost as long about how such a system would provide great benefits to the U.S. Both clips have been watched about 11,000 times on YouTube.

Voter input and feedback are also going to expand dramatically in the coming months, both for online and conventional debates. In the “video mashup” being held next month, for instance, Mr. Rose will take the questions from viewers. Also next month, MySpace plans to start a series of forums for Republican and Democratic candidates across the country. Each will feature one presidential candidate speaking in a college campus hall filled with MySpace members. The meetings will also be broadcast online, where other MySpace users can submit questions via instant message and vote on how well the candidate has answered questions.

“Rather than putting 10 candidates on a stage and filtering questions through producers from traditional media, we were interested in finding a way to create as authentic dialogue as you can with someone running for president,” said Jeff Berman, senior vice president of public affairs at MySpace. MySpace is a division of News Corp., which has agreed to acquire Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal.

For campaigns, the online format offers another advantage. For some of the forums, the candidates don’t actually have to appear together in person at the same place at the same time. This campaign has seen a proliferation of debates and forums. Between now and the end of the year, no less than 16 debates, forums and town halls are being planned for the more than a dozen politicians vying for each party’s nomination. That has become a sore point with the candidates, who try to juggle that with their regular campaign schedules. For the MoveOn town halls, candidates Webcast their remarks from different locations throughout the country.

The Democratic candidates have embraced online debating more fully than Republicans, and they have taken the lead with much of the experimentation. CNN and YouTube had to delay their plans for a Republican debate after two leading Republican candidates—Mr. Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani—cited scheduling conflicts and announced they would bypass the planned September event.

That prompted a small, vocal group of Republican political Internet consultants to protest and launch a Web site, Savethedebate.com. “We do realize that we’re behind and the first step in any recovery is recognizing that you have a problem,” said David All, a former congressional spokesman turned Internet consultant who helped start the blog TechRepublican.com.

Mr. Giuliani’s campaign has confirmed he will attend the rescheduled CNN/YouTube debate in St. Petersburg, Fla., now planned for late November. Mr. Romney hasn’t. “The proposed date is still well over three months away, so we haven’t yet finalized any schedule plans that far in advance,” said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Mr. Romney. Arizona Sen. John McCain has also confirmed he’ll attend the debate, which has already attracted more than 1,200 video questions online.

For candidates, the Internet debates also come along with polls, which allow campaign supporters to rally online to show grass-roots support. At the end of each of its town halls, MoveOn members voted on the winner, and the group issued a fund-raising appeal on his behalf. Mr. Obama won one; Mr. Edwards, the other. MySpace will cap its town-hall series with a two-day national online primary in January.

In December, a separate nonprofit group is planning a national Internet presidential caucus. Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy and the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics are among the groups that have signed on to help with the event, which would still require voters to meet in person to decide on their favorite nominee. Information about local caucusing sites and the results would be compiled and posted online.

“If there’s going to be a national primary, then you ought to have a national caucus first,” says Myles Weissleder, a former Meetup.com executive who is helping to plan the event.




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