November 24, 2014
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The way we see it
Making politics pop

This election season, the presidential debates are where pop culture and politics collide. With so much reality television on the airwaves, is it difficult to see how the line can get blurred between presidential candidates and the thousands of other people who achieve their 15 minutes of fame through some other outlet? In a culture that’s hard-wired for reality programming, the presidential debate this year fell from grace and, to many viewers, became 90 minutes of prime time entertainment.

At a debate watch event at URI, students were polled on their reactions to Obama and Romney. Before the debate, roughly two-thirds of students said they would vote for Obama; after the debate, only 34 percent supported him. Instead, Romney got the majority of the support.

Over at CCRI, there weren’t nearly as many people who changed their preferred candidate after the debate’s conclusion. A group of about 130 people gathered at the Knight Campus to watch the debate and attended post-debate focus groups to discuss their reactions. About 80 percent of the attendees said the debate didn’t change their candidate of choice, though the same amount agreed that Jim Lehrer, long-time PBS news anchor and the debate’s moderator, failed to do an adequate job.

Though it was Lehrer, not Obama or Romney, who generated the most Tweets per minute on the popular social networking site, Twitter. His quip, “Let’s not” to Romney’s appeal for a new topic, generated nearly 160,000 tweets per minutes, though Obama’s “I had five seconds before you interrupted me” came in a close second with about 153,000 tweets per minute.

What most of the data shows is that, despite both candidates’ attempts to saturate their answers with facts and figures, the general public’s takeaways were strictly perfunctory. Romney’s comment about cutting PBS and subsequently Sesame Street and Big Bird was arguably the most memorable moment of the night. Why? Because everyone knows Big Bird, and not everyone knows the minutia of economic policy. Several Twitter accounts sprung up instantly bearing names like @FiredBigBird that garnered thousands of followers within hours (though the birds’ tweets fell silent soon after, as many were suspended.)

The next debate will be about foreign policy, and although one could safely assume Big Bird won’t come up again, who would have guessed the iconic yellow bird would have made such an impact on the first presidential debate?

Though the results from URI and CCRI show contrasting trends, it’s still clear that presentation and format were the things that stood out to the majority of people that watched the debate, not content. If we can learn anything from the social networking stats, it’s that debates are in serious jeopardy of slipping into the dark abyss of reality TV. Today, people clearly expect more pop-culture from their politics.


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