The Real Impact of the YouTube Debate

Kerri Glover attended the debate as an OffTheBus reporter.

While the mainstream media continues to report on who "won" or "lost" the first YouTube debate and analyzes responses to the hot button-issues, there has been less emphasis on whether having citizens pose the questions directly to candidates really changed anything. Candidates frequently face the citizenry at campaign events or in (often scripted) town hall meetings, but last night marked the first time citizens - through video and in person - were permitted to question candidates directly during a televised national debate. The question is - did it really change how the candidates responded?

"I don't think it had any significant impact," said Steve Nida, a social psychology professor at The Citadel, who was in the "spin room" after the debate. "My initial gut-level reaction is that the YouTube format is more of a novelty than anything that had substantive impact on what was said and how it was said ... you're going to hear the same things from the candidates whether CNN scripts the questions or they're submitted on YouTube videos."

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake disagreed, contending the first YouTube debate changed the political landscape. "In '92, we introduced the first town hall meetings. I think this is the modern-day town hall."

Presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Joe Biden, D-Del., said the format played to his long-held contention that the 2008 election "will be won in the living rooms of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina ... a father whose son is serving in Iraq doesn't want to hear our four-point plans for Iraq. He wants a straight answer about what we're going to do to bring him home."

John Edwards, the candidate and former U.S. Senator from North Carolina, actually became the first candidate to be directly addressed by one of the YouTube questioners, who was in the audience and was asked his opinion of Edwards' response.

Rev. Reggie Longcrier, pastor of Exodus Mission and Outreach Church in Hickory, N.C., asked one of the tougher questions for a southern politician to answer - not only on CNN, but particularly in front of a predominantly southern live audience. "Senator Edwards said his opposition to gay marriage is influenced by his Southern Baptist background. Most Americans agree it was wrong and unconstitutional to use religion to justify slavery, segregation, and denying women the right to vote. So why is it still acceptable to use religion to deny gay American their full and equal rights?"

Edwards response is documented elsewhere - what's interesting is Longcrier's opinion of it because THAT's what you don't typically hear in a national debate. Asked by Anderson Cooper if he thought Edwards answered his question, Longcrier said, "Not like I would like to have heard it." Of course, he then explained that he literally couldn't hear part of the answer. Cooper allowed Edwards another 30 seconds and then moved on, denying the national audience the totality of Longcrier's reaction.

In the "spin room" following the debate, Edwards' staff was pleased with his performance and the format. Joe Trippi, credited with developing Howard Dean's game-changing Internet strategy in 2000 and now an Edwards senior adviser, said: "This is a revolutionary step forward for presidential campaigns the same way Dean's use of the Internet was in 2004. The questions were more substantive and the responses were better as a result."

Through the filter of my own experience, which includes being on both sides of these events as a reporter and later as a press secretary for politicians, the YouTube format was the story of the night - and an even better story would be what the people who asked the questions thought of the answers. The candidates didn't say anything surprising or newsworthy. Indeed, few even bothered to address the questioners directly, opting instead to stick to their well-rehearsed answers on various issues. The only real difference last night was HOW the questions were asked - by regular folks via YouTube videos. (And I'm not even so sure they were all "regular folks." More than one question directed to specific candidates seemed posed by their supporters to elicit just the right response - another canned answer, for the most part.) But that's just my own (perhaps cynical) opinion. Lots of people we talked with last night seemed genuinely energized and excited about the latest twist on the national political stage.

Let's give the last word to Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who on his way out of the "spin room," said, "I thought it was great! It's fulfilling the promise of the Internet and is an end to the one-way TV. It's effectively handing the power to a new generation ... And it's going to be even more interesting when it's the Republicans' turn. I can't wait to see that one!"