This 2012 presidential race is one of a kind. History will crown it the year of the debates.
And it is not just that the three presidential debates shook up the race and put Republican Mitt Romney back in the game.
The history making element of the 2012 debates is that this year they became an interactive social media event attracting massive audiences. They rivaled the Super Bowl and Wrestlemania in audience size and lust for combat because Americans for the first time had the communal experience of scoring each debate in real time.
On Twitter and blogs the debates were scored minute by minute by grandma, the kids and everyone else in the living room. And stars from Hollywood to media personalities, and politicians joined in the fun with the folks at home. The whole nation competed for the best one-liners, the perfect put-down or come back as the debate was taking place.
Trying to appear presidential, above the cage-match mentality with a sober, thoughtful, reserved approach does not work when the social media world wants zingers that mock your opponent. President Obama lost the first debate for failing to satisfy the big crowd by refusing to draw blood. Mitt Romney similarly lost the last debate for failing to take the fight to the president on foreign affairs.
The second debate, with the candidates looking on the verge of a fist-fight, interrupting each other and calling out false claims was the first true debate by the new rules for this era.
During these debates, Twitter gave us much more than “Hashtags” for Big Bird, Binders and Bayonets. Twitter has given birth to an entirely new debate experience that I believe will be the new norm for presidential debates from here on.
I saw this historic shift firsthand at each of the four debate sites. I was genuinely surprised that so many of my colleagues – honest, solid, hardworking journalists - were not actually watching the debate on television or their computer screens.
Instead, their eyes were perpetually glued to their iPads, Blackberrys and iPhones reading what other people were saying about the debate in Twitter Feeds and Facebook posts.
That instantaneous scoring distorted the reality of the debates for the journalists and the surrogates in the spin room. The focus was on the put-downs, the one-liners and the expectations of the folks doing the tweets and it dictated what was said on television immediately after the debates.
Twitter reports that there were 6.5 Million tweets tonight during the final 90 minutes presidential debate, 7.2 million tweets during the second debate in New York and a whopping 10.3 million tweets during the first debate in Denver.
These metrics made the first debate the most tweeted political event in the six-year history of the social networking site. Prior to that, Obama’s DNC Acceptance Speech in Charlotte this summer had been the most-tweeted political event. Twitter was created in 2006 and now reports over 500 million users worldwide.
Going into this year’s debates the conventional political wisdom from political scientists and journalists was that debates don’t really matter. The only time any debate clearly made a difference was in 1960, when Americans saw the two major party candidates square off on television for the first time in history. The image of a sweaty Richard Nixon with a five o’clock shadow hurt the Republican badly.
In the 13 presidential contests since then it is hard to make the case that any presidential debate performances influenced enough voters to determine the winner of a presidential election. There have been moments: Gerald Ford’s mistaken judgment about Soviet influence over Poland; George H.W. Bush looking at his watch as if he couldn’t wait to get out of there; and Al Gore’s sighing in dismissive regard for George W. Bush.
The power of social media to create a distorted, avalanche of public opinion about what happened during a debate can be best seen in the first contest between Gov. Romney and President Obama.
Much as people who heard the Nixon-Kennedy debate on radio said they thought Nixon won, I thought the contest a draw or even an Obama win because I closed out the interactive world and simply listened and watched what the candidates said during that first debate.
The day after, I wrote on FoxNews.com “I just didn’t see the overwhelming, game-changing victory for Mitt Romney that his supporters are touting all over television and the Internet today. I didn’t see the humiliating defeat for President Obama that some liberals saw as they began their bellyaching about how President Obama has lost his momentum and could now lose the election.”
Even liberals dumped all over Obama’s debate performance with comedian Bill Maher tweeting that "I can't believe I'm saying this, but Obama looks like he DOES need a TelePrompter.”
Fact-checking of claims such as Romney’s assertion that his 5 trillion tax plan wouldn’t cost 5 trillion dollars could not keep up with the fact that he said it and President Obama did not throw it back at him by accusing him of a lie.
The perception that coalesced around that first debate turned the election from a likely Obama win to a dead heat. It was as if he had garbled his words, lost his thoughts and made factual errors – none of which occurred. But it nonetheless moved the polls in a big way. The Pew poll showed this dramatic reversal most clearly. According to Pew, before the first debate, President Obama led Romney by eight points, 51 to 43. Among women voters, Obama was outperforming Romney by 18 points – 56 to 38. After the Denver debate, Pew showed Romney leading Obama by four points, 49 to 45. Among women after the debate, the race was a dead heat, 47 to 47.
The perception that Romney won the first debate was a byproduct of this new media experience. Even though Obama won the two subsequent debates, it was not enough to dislodge the initial perception and he could lose the election because of it. Welcome to the new political order.
Juan Williams is a Fox News political analyst. He is the author of several books including "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America--and What We Can Do About It" and "Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate."