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MTV/MySpace Postmortem: Change vs. Experience vs. Ron Paul

BY Michael Connery | Sunday, February 3 2008

Last night, four Presidential candidates participated in the final MTV/MySpace Candidate Dialogue. Dubbed "Closing Arguments," the event, which ran almost two hours, was a final chance for the candidates to make their arguments to young voters, who have played an influential role in the nominating process thus far.

The event was not very interesting in what it told us about the candidates - most viewers in the live audience had already decided which candidate would receive their ballot, and the candidates themselves said nothing new. Last night's event was interesting in that it revealed a new battleground for online organizing that will surely come into play during the general election.

When I arrived at the event at MTV studios in Times Square, a rally in support of Sen. Obama was already in progress. The Obama camp placed attendance somewhere around 300. Supporters were also there for Hillary and Ron Paul, though their numbers were much more modest. This wasn't all that unexpected. Obama has the most youth support by far, and he's been able to organize his supporters quite effectively on the ground.

The surprises came during the online polling when Ron Paul took his turn (all online polling results below):

I've long noted that the candidate dialogues were the most interactive events on the campaign trail, and I've been excited about the possibility that MTV and MySpace could create a feedback loop between the candidates and the online audience that would keep the candidates more honest in their answers and cut down on speculation among the punditry by providing a real-time glimpse into what young voters were thinking about the campaigns.

This didn't happen in previous Dialogues, where young voters overwhelmingly agreed with the answers provided by Senators Obama, Edwards, and McCain. My hope was that this feedback loop would emerge during last night's Q&A with one of the Republican candidates, who generally have views that contrast greatly with those of young voters.

Instead of that feedback loop, what I saw was a tactical assault by Ron Paul supporters to "win" the debate for their candidate. In question after question, Ron Paul scored much higher than I would have expected, and the Democratic candidates scored far lower than I thought possible.

For example, Darfur has long been a high priority with young voters, who are also multilateralists, and questions about the genocide have come up in almost all of the previous dialogues. When asked a question about Darfur, Dr. Paul laid out a non-interventionist plan for handling the crisis in which he equated direct involvement in solving the Darfur crisis to our intervention in Iraq. I expected Paul's answer to invoke a backlash in the online voting. Instead, he garnered a startling 61 percent support.

This level of support continued. 76 percent supported his views on how the country should have responded to 9/11. 78 percent supported his views on energy independence. 81 percent supported his foreign policy ideas, and fully half declared their intention to vote for Rep. Paul on Tuesday. To be sure, Ron Paul has some youth support, but this was above and beyond any support he's received thus far. Even in the Republican contests Huckabee, Romney and McCain have repeatedly done better among young conservative voters than Ron Paul.

These results were startling, but perhaps not unexpected. Ron Paul's support has mostly manifested itself on the internet, where he dominates social news websites like Digg and Reddit. This tech savvy was on display once again last night, and the Paulites were not content to limit their activity to boosting their candidate. They also worked to drag down his opponents.

This was confirmed when the Democrats - Obama and Clinton - had their turn. Sen. Obama scored just above or below 50 percent support on almost every question asked of him. This was far different from his first appearance on MTV, when he typically scored upwards of 75% support. Chris Cilliza of the Washington Post, the moderator in charge of the online component of the debate tried to explain Obama's low-marks as a manifestation of young voters desire for "experience" over the Senator's message of "change," but polling for Clinton not ten minutes later put the lie to that analysis. Sen. Clinton rarely scored higher than 25 or 30 percent support, despite the fact that younger people are participating in the Democratic primaries in far greater numbers than the GOP contests.

Last night, Obama's supporters showed their strength outside the venue with as they rallied for their candidate, but Ron Paul's supporters were the real winners last night. Yet again they were the first to break new ground in another online venue. Unlike the other campaigns, Paul's supporters figured out that the interactivity of the MySpace/MTV dialogues was a two way street; it could keep candidates accountable, but it could also be used by supporters to influence the kinds of questions their candidate received and how his performance was reported. Pauls supporters made last night's event another battleground for their online campaign, and gave their long-shot candidate another feather in his cap (even if they probably didn't improve his chances of winning the nomination).

This has implications beyond Super Tuesday. Due to the success of these events, MTV and MySpace will likely engage the eventually nominees for both parties next fall. Whoever those nominees are, if they are smart, they will learn last night's lesson and organizer their supporters accordingly.

Finally, we've spent a lot of time opining about these MTV/MySpace Dialogues, but what do young voters themselves think of the format? I talked to four of last nights attendees to get their thoughts: