There's a trump card in the 2012 presidential debates, and while nobody's really talking about it yet, almost everybody is talking through it. That card is social media.
With its real-time response to anything and everything the presidential candidates say and do during the debates, social media will feature a live, running commentary as Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney defend their positions during three October debates.
Two Mississippi State University experts -- one, a political pundit, the other, a political scientist -- bring different kinds of election expertise to the debate discussion, but they agreed that social media's response to the presidential debates, to be held Oct. 3, Oct. 16 and Oct. 22, could be the game changers of this election.
Both Sid Salter, MSU journalist-in-residence, and Marty Wiseman, director of MSU's John C. Stennis Institute of Government and political science professor, said the presidential candidates will face intense scrutiny from social media, which will critique everything the candidates say and do, and it will be a key factor in bringing undecided voters to choose sides.
In past elections, pre-debate polls have been good indicators of who would win the debates and the election, they agreed, but the current popularity and influence of social media is so fast and so far-reaching, this year's debates could prove the exception to the rule.
"Too many people watch the presidential debates for them to be inconsequential," Wiseman said. "With the new, absolute explosion of social media, you can have the smallest little parenthetical expression that occurs in a debate, and you are going to see it parsed so many times in social media, there will be consequences," Wiseman said.
Voters whose minds are already made up are not likely to change no matter what happens at the debates, Salter observed, and fewer than 10 percent of the electorate in only eight swing states are still undecided.
These undecided voters are the ones that the candidates will address, Wiseman agreed.
"Their debate messages will get honed almost exclusively to impact those key swing states," he said. "They will prepare those messages as if the other states don't matter."
Even as the candidates sharpen and refine their positions to address the undecided voters in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia, the candidates and the pundits will still have much more to do: They must be ready for fact-checkers, Salter said.
"Even the fact-checking gets fact-checked, because if you accept the fact-checking without checking the facts, you get propaganda," he said. "Facts without context are incomplete, and it's rare when there isn't some nuance to examine."
Pundits need to check their facts, too, Salter continued, even though it can slow reaction time in social media, where speed is often of the utmost importance.
From the candidates to the bloggers, all the speakers need to do their homework and get their facts straight before the debates begin because social media puts them all in the spotlight, Wiseman pointed out.
"Social media can require a snap judgment without a lot of research, and you get a commentary based on gut feelings and partisan leanings," Salter cautioned. "Even in the 2004 race, Facebook was three years in the future and Twitter was five years in the future. People would wait to hear what the pundits would say.
"But now, you don't even get that much separation between an utterance and the public receiving it: Now, reaction comes immediately."
That reaction could spell victory or doom for one of the candidates, Wiseman noted.
"If you get the facts out there and you're right, then it's going to seal the deal in that key swing state, but if you mutter the wrong thing, it's going to be put out there in every manner of blog in the world," he said.
From Facebook to Twitter, and all the other blogs and networks in between, every word, glance and movement from Obama and Romney will be dissected, Salter said.
Wiseman and Salter agreed they'll be watching the debates and social media closely as the final weeks before the Nov. 6 presidential election come and go. Follow their commentary on Twitter at @M_WisemanGOVT and @sidsalter.
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