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Another Take on McCain's MySpace/MTV Appearance

BY Michael Connery | Monday, December 3 2007

You got Josh's view from inside the belly of the beast. Now here's what it looked like for those following along online.

The first Republican candidate has finally had their turn in the Myspace/MTV dialogues. Tonight Senator John McCain took questions from a live audience in Manchester, NH, supplemented by feedback from the Flektor Polling widget and IM comments from those watching via MTV, MTV.com, and MySpace, in both English and Spanish.

There were really two question on the table tonight - how would MTV an MySpace improve what has to date been the most participatory candidate forums in the campaign; and how would the feedback process developed by MTV and MySpace work when put up against a candidate who's position on a number of issues widely diverged from that of the audience?

On the part of MTV, there were a number of improvements. For the first time the event was simulcast on TV and the web, instead of rebroadcast later in the evening. This timing was also significant in that this was the first debate originally taped/streamed/aired when young professionals, students - everyone who would find this debate interesting and might want to participate online - could be at home to watch. Questions from the online audience were posted on-screen, making them easier to follow, and the moderator Cilizza seemed slightly more aggressive in his follow-ups (this could have been due to the more adversarial relationship McCain had to the audience than previous participants). Finally, in a nod to the growing Hispanic population - which is also a very young population - the event was simulcast in Spanish.

As for the feedback loop, it was definitely in effect, though not quite in the way that I expected. All in all, McCain did quite well. Throughout the evening, the Senator fielded a much wider range of questions than what the Republicans fielded at the recent YouTube/CNN Debate, something the Senator himself astutely noted. On questions about climate change and Darfur, he polled quite well, and by being frank with the audience about issues on which they disagreed (Iraq and troop withdrawals, the only question where more than 50% of the respondents disagreed with his answers), McCain managed to at least keep - if not enhance - his credibility during moments with high-gaffe/negative impact potential.

McCain seems to have skillfully walked a tightrope on the issue of Iraq. If he had become too defensive, or less artfully set up his disagreements with the audience, there might have been a backlash both in the polling and in the tone of followup questions. That didn't happen. Instead, McCain actually gained ground among the viewing audience during the debate, demonstrating a positive, rather than negative feedback loop with the audience.

While I expected a functioning feedback loop between a Republican candidate, and a young audience to create a great deal of pushback and an adversarial relationship with the candidate, in fact the opposite seems to have happened. At the beginning of the debate, the online audience was polled as to their opinion of Sen. McCain on "the issues." At the top of the hour, 60% of respondents either agreed with the Senator or thought they might. By the end of the evening, that number had risen to 72%. That's not bad for an hour's work, and ample evidence that Republicans can gain ground with young voters if they attempt to reach out and speak to them substantively and honestly on the issues - even if that means agreeing to disagree.

An interesting side-note to the evening was a video question submitted by What's Your Plan, a program of The New Voters Project, that seeks to ask all the candidates detailed questions about their policy proposals. When MySpace/MTV announced that they would air one video question from the viewing audience based on an open voting process, the group used a FaceBook group to organize support for their video about climate change.

There are still a few quibbles with the format. There could still be more follow-up questions on each issue, and they don't yet seem to have figured out how to handle cross-issue contradictions (for instance, McCain said multiple times that he would "fully fund" things, but also talked about cutting wasteful spending without talking about how those two positions might be contradictory in a Republican administration). Additionally, Cillizza, the online moderator, didn't inject himself enough into the debate when the candidate dodged, or when the background knowledge of the students was insufficient to really press a follow-up.

All in all though, MTV and MySpace keep upping the ante with these candidate forums, and in terms of creating a more transparent, participatory interaction between the candidates and a mass audience, they continue to blow CNN and YouTube out of the water. With one month to go before the Iowa Caucus, it seems unlikely that we'll get more than one more of these dialogues - if that - before the media crowns victors in both parties' nominating contests. As we enter the general election, these formats should become the gold standard for all future debates and televised forums.

Cross posted at Future Majority.