In 1960, television transformed the presidential debate, revealing another dimension of the candidates and bringing Americans closer to understanding their personas. Ultimately, television-aired debates forced candidates to refine their images and debate techniques so that they appear more likable to voters. Fifty-two years later, as we embark on the first debate of the general election, the style of presidential debate is about to change -- except now, because of the power of the Internet, we are in transition from candidates responding to TV audiences to social media audiences.
We all know about that fateful day in October when Kennedy debated Nixon, and those who listened on the radio believed Nixon to win and those who watched on TV believed Kennedy to win. Kennedy understood the power of mass media, even with TV in its infancy. He took control of his image and thus launched the era of political showmanship, where candidates became slaves to television imagery.
Over the past 50 years, our presidential candidates have built their campaigns around television visuals and messaging -- from ads, to news sound bites to debate techniques -- almost everything on a presidential campaign revolves around, and roots back to, how a candidate and his message comes through the screen to voters.
Today, we are at a turning point. No longer are we watching two television networks with our "trusted" anchors delivering us news channeled from the campaign. No, today we have hundreds of television channels, newspapers, blogs and, of course, citizens using social media, each with independent political agendas. The pundit class has grown. And the response rate has gone from 24 hours to nanoseconds.
What we're left with this election is a country full of pundits throwing their opinions and critiques instantaneously out onto the Internet as events happen. We saw this when Twitter beat majors news outlets in fact-checking Paul Ryan's RNC speech. Will we see it during the debates? Absolutely.
With the power of citizens growing and the power of curated and filtered content providers withering, candidates will need to change their game. Politicians, who have become caricatures of themselves for TV, are now stuck choosing between two worlds: the traditional appeal to the TV world that is packaged and delivered almost on queue; and the social media world, which demands authenticity, depth, connectivity and intuition.
Call me an optimist, but we may be at our political tipping point. The demands set on our candidates to speak perfectly, appeal to every demographic (with often conflicting messages), to be everywhere and say everything all at once -- all to appear like the most authentic candidate. These demands have zapped the life out of our politicians.
That's why presidential debates have been so entertaining -- they are the one time candidates appear to be off-script and, well, human, with the entire country simultaneously watching live. Except now, we will be watching with the candidates -- chiming in on Twitter, Facebook and our blogs, before major news networks can vocalize their analyses.
What does this mean for politicians? As media move quicker and citizens are actively involved in discussions, politicians will be forced to be themselves. In other words, politicians will be forced to drop the act.
We are in the midst of that transition right now.
How do we know this won't produce a new kind of canned candidate, one designed for social media? We know this because social media is constantly moving, instantaneously responding to events and conversations. Social media's ebbs and flows are in line with the pulse of its users.
It is impossible for a presidential candidate to get away with speaking conflictingly to different groups anymore -- they're getting called out, attacked and petitioned by the public. They will need to be their authentic selves because everyone today is a fact-checker. Everyone uses Google and has a camera phone. Candidates cannot please everyone. They will be forced to be responsible for their actions and words -- therefore more accountable and more authentic.
It was easier and more predictable to play the TV media game because there were standards, rules and limits that candidates could conform to. Social media is more intuitive, which requires natural connectivity.
So, pay attention to the show around the show. Tune into the conversations on Twitter as the debates are happening. And listen to the TV pundits, only moments post debate, and see if their analysis are parallel to the social media conversations. Or, even better -- if they were framed by the live social media conversations. And in two weeks when we see the second presidential debate, watch carefully for changes in the candidates' behaviors -- notes taken from the public response.
While today we may have the ultimate packaged candidates, we will eventually be left with the candidate that connects with voters most. We do indeed live in fascinating times.