YouTube, Presidential Debates, & YouRhetoric

Curator's Note

Mass Media has often played a crucial role in how we elect our politicians, and specifically our presidents. The most cited example of this phenomenon is of course the Kennedy Nixon debates, and Kennedy’s ability to use the new medium of televised debates to beat Nixon. Of course we could also connect here debate formats as well, with Bill Clinton’s ability to understand the changed format of the townhall debate as a reason for his victory over Bush Sr.. In this regard I find myself wondering how the YouTube debates shift both the media and the debate format, one which requires of the candidates a new sort of rhetoric. The Republican consternation following the Democratic debates often centered around the way the questions were asked not the questions themselves: Why should a candidate have to answer a question from a snowman. However, as Henry Jenkins points out, politicians have always used rhetoric, and imagery to convey messages to voters. What was different about the YouTube debates was that now the public was able to use rhetoric as well. Gone was the ideal that questions are asked by a neutral third party “objective” journalist. Now instead it is quite clear that the whole process is coached in layers of elaborate rhetoric, from question to response, which certainly changes the distribution of power in the political conversation. It strikes me that this will necessarily directly affect elections, if not this one, then certainly ones in the near future. And, this extends beyond YouTube as well to other Web 2.0 media outlets. From blogs to MySpace the political arena is being shaped by a YouRhetoric that warrants attention. For, candidates that are able to capitalize on this rhetorical shift are more likely to succeed in their campaigns. As an example consider this clip from the debates. Edwards (after Obama) tries to answer this health care question by relying on the “let me tell you a story of someone I met” rhetoric. In prior debate models this worked as an effective strategy to humanize one’s answer. But in this case it seems to me that Edwards’s answer falls flat, because the questioner was asking about their story and wanted a response to them, not for Edwards to say “I know someone like you.” Clinton, at least in my judgement, answers the question better by thanking and naming the individuals, recognizing the authority of those who asked the question.


I wonder if the rhetorical challenge of the YouTube debates is really terribly different from that posed by formats that have audience members ask questions in person. The candidate must address the question-asker, but also a broader public. Edwards didn't address the questioners by name, but did reference them by their stories, also recognizing their authority. Otherwise, as an audience member of the debate, I'm not interested in responses tailored to these individuals any more than I'd be interested in an answer tailored to Anderson Cooper, so in that respect, I didn't think Edward's answer was less rhetorically deft than Clinton's (I like Edwards better anyway, so I'm not an impartial judge). In fact, I'd be inclined to argue that addressing the question-askers too specifically would be a misreading of the rhetorical situation. However, I definitely agree that how members of the public use these new rhetorical possibilities and how this affects political debates will be interesting and a rich area for research.

I certainly think there is room to disagree about whose answer was better in terms of content. But what interest me is that there is a power shift. Questioners in the "townhall" format were always subject to a particular "neutral" way of asking the questions. Here in this format they have a variety of rhetorical tools at their disposal, since they are asking from their own space. Now this is not necessarily limited to YouTube, one could have done this by allowing questioners to submit VCR taped questions, but certainly YouTube enables this in a more rapid, comfortable way. I mean seriously who would have ever thought that a presidential debate would feature a talking snowman?

I've been thinking about the YouTube debate for a while and I find myself veering between the optimistic position that suggests that there is a power shift taking place here. As you point out, the videos allow people to address the public from their personal space (I was struck, for example, by the prominent use of the photographs in at least two instances), depicting the ways in which the questioners are invested in issues such as universal health care. At the same time, I do wonder to what extent the debate is "remediated" by the presence of Anderson Cooper as moderator. I found it interesting that all four of the health care questions were bundled together, which seemed to reduce the individuality of the questioners to some extent. That being said, I think that Clinton's rhetorical strategy in addressing the questioners by name may have been more effective, regardless of how I feel about her specific health care policies (I like Edwards' policy better).

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