Presidential Debates in the Digital Era

Jennifer Kocal in Golden, Colorado

By Lillian Williams

Jennifer Kocal, a 45-year-old Colorado resident and registered Republican, plans to vote for President Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential contest.

Kocal spoke about what influenced her decision during an interview on Sept. 13 in Golden, Colorado, a city located at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  Moments before, she heard President Obama speak during a campaign rally at a local park.

As I began to ask questions during the interview, she motioned for me to stop.

She took out a picture of a child.

“I have a little boy,” she said, holding up his picture.  His name is Gary, after his grandfather. He has autism.

“After he was diagnosed with autism, the health care system started playing games, and saying ‘we don’t have to cover anything for your child.’ “We’re still fighting the system.

“And then Obama came along, and I said, ‘Okay, finally someone different.’

“I’m tired of the same old stories, the same old thing.  I believe in this man.  He says he’s going to help my son.  He says he’s going to help my family.  We have $21,000 of debt every year.  I’m living off of credit cards. I got ill, and started having post-traumatic stress disorder.  I’m on Social Security disability now.

“I believe he cares about me and my family.  I know he won’t deny the fact that my son exists. And, he would never want any mother to hear that her child does not exist because he has special needs.

“During his speech…I wanted to say, “It’s me. I’m one of the Republicans who is supporting you. Right over here, I got your back.  I had it four years ago, and I’ll have it now.”

Kocal appeared convinced that Obama understands her pain and that he intends to help families like hers. Let’s be clear: Republican challenger Mitt Romney has voters in his camp who are just as passionate.

Next week, however, each candidate will have yet another opportunity to clarify stands on domestic issues and to persuade voters still on the fence.  The candidates will participate in the first of three presidential debates to be held on Wednesday, Oct. 3, in Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colo. Two other debates are scheduled for Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. and Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

In this digital era, however, a simultaneous debate will take place in social media.  Everyday citizens will instantaneously register their analyses and perceptions of the candidates’ debate performances. In the form of blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, and other social media outlets, ordinary Americans will make their voices heard.

For additional information about presidential debates, numerous free Web-based resources are available. The Journalist’s Resource, a research portal operated by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, offers a round-up of research studies on the effects of presidential debates.

For background information about likely debate issues and a short history of the debates, you can download the free e-book, The IDEA Guide to the U.S. 2012 Presidential Debates, published by the International Debate Education Association.  For an analysis of each candidate’s strengths and weakness in a debate forum, The Atlantic magazine features a lengthy analysis by veteran journalist James Fallows.

It’s your turn.  What are your perceptions about the impact of social media and other digital communication tools on presidential elections in this digital era?

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