Before the first Presidential debate, Oct. 3, it seemed almost quaint, the idea of a televised debate affecting the election. What was this, 1980? 1960? In a sophisticated media age, with audiences scattered to the winds and getting news from many different outlets, the idea of one big-megaphone event reaching a nation of voters seemed outmoded in many ways.
Campaigns were about microtargeting now. Voters put more time and trust into social media. The Republican convention didn’t budge the poll numbers; the Democratic one did, a little more, but not on the order of past elections. The era of big TV was over, and besides, as polarized and partisan as we were now, was anyone out there really persuadable?
And yet the first Presidential debate did shake up the race in a big way. You can argue that the polls were tightening before the event even took place, but they tightened like hell afterwards after Mitt Romney’s eager, optimistic, “By the Way, I’m a Moderate Now” performance and Barack Obama‘s disengaged showing that appeared to be sponsored by Ambien. And that’s not the only thing that’s changed: now the political world is looking at tonight’s debate with the mindset that TV debates do, very much, matter.
You could argue that the Republican primaries should have prepared us for this. The whole fall, winter and spring, they could and did shift the race again and again. Rick Perry effectively ended his candidacy through the debates, Gingrich surged into the lead with a strong South Carolina debate and lost that lead just as quickly. Herman Cain, for God’s sake, became a frontrunner largely on the strength of some well-received debate outings.
But the GOP primary was a different race, very volatile from beginning to end. Right-wing base voters spent the campaign running en masse, like a flash mob, from one Romney alternative to another. In a race like that, of course debates—watched by a highly engaged core of voters—were going to matter. You probably moved the Iowa polls a few points every time you sneezed last fall. The Presidential race, on the other hand, had been marked by unusual stability throughout the spring and summer.
Policy proposals and politics aside, one reason I think the first debate was able to have such an effect reflects the way TV in general works now as a mass medium. In general, day to day, it’s much less mass. There are a lot of choices, people watch shows at different times, and the experience is less cumulative and simultaneous. But there are those few exceptions every year—the Oscars, the Super Bowl, the Olympics—when TV awakens as a big medium. Everybody’s focus is on the same thing, and that focus is amplified by second screens like Facebook and Twitter.
The debates, it seems, are the Oscars, Super Bowl and Olympics for politics. They’re the one time that the pattern of shrinking audiences reverses. (In much the same way, even as the average audience for even the most popular primetime shows is shrinking—though more people are still watching TV overall than ever—the Super Bowl keeps setting ratings records.)
And as with those big entertainment events, social media, not used by everyone but enough to matter, becomes an instant watercooler. And, in the case of the debates, an amplifier. Reactions are immediate, conventional wisdom is set quickly, and—this being the way of the Internet—judgments become much more intense. Just as every approaching winter storm now becomes a “snowpocalypse” as we blabber about it online, a bad debate night becomes an abject humiliation, a strong performance becomes the most remarkable turnaround in modern history.
These moments are more and more rare on television now, but when they come, they have the potential to be more and more powerful, and accompanied by more hyperbole. In that spirit, I might suggest to anyone running a campaign today that, yes, with a fragmented audience and a lot of digital distractions, TV is not nearly as important and influential as it used to be. Except, that is, when it is absolutely the most important thing in the world.