By McKenna Middleton | Page One Editor
If nothing else, the current presidential election proves that candidates are not judged on their actions and words alone, evidenced by the nomination of a politically inexperienced candidate with a track record of contradicting his own words, and his opposition, who has a reputation for keeping her public life secret. In the digital age, the influence of a candidate’s persona plays an increasingly crucial role through television and social media presence.
Nielsen estimates 84 million people tuned into the first presidential debate on Sept. 26. This is the highest viewership of a presidential debate, topping the ratings for the 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan by 3 million, according to NPR.
On Sept. 26, 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon made history in in the first televised debate.
“It’s one of those unusual points on the timeline of history where you can say things changed very dramatically — in this case, in a single night,” Alan Schroeder, a media historian and associate professor at Northeastern University and author of “Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV,” said to Time magazine.
Kennedy’s persona was calm and collected while Nixon appeared uncomfortable with the cameras. Those who listened to the debate on the radio considered Nixon the winner, but those who watched the debate on television crowned Kennedy, according to Time magazine.
“It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide,” Kennedy said a few days after the debate.
According to Time magazine, “the next televised presidential debate wouldn’t take place for 16 years, largely because candidates became wary of their influence.”
“Before the television debates, most Americans didn’t even see the candidates — they read about them; they saw photos of them,” said Larry Sabato, political analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and author of the forthcoming book, “The Kennedy Half-Century,” to Time magazine. “When parties are considering their candidates, they ask: Who would look better on TV? Who comes across better? Who can debate better?”
However, Nielsen’s estimated 84 million only reflect the 13 networks that aired the debate live. As much as television changed the political process, social media has changed the way candidates campaign.
“There could’ve been the 100 million that people talked about in advance of the debates,” said NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik in an NPR podcast following the first debate. “We’re doing it in a much more fragmented way. So many more television outlets, so many more different online outlets – different ways to consume.”
Nielsen reported 17.1 million Twitter interactions from 2.7 million people in the U.S. related to the first debate.
President Barack Obama is well known for utilizing social media in his 2012 campaign.
“Presidents have always wanted to talk to all Americans at once, have them pay attention and have them believe what they are saying,” said Nate Persily, a Stanford University law professor, to the Washington Post. “With the new platforms, not only can President Obama speak directly to ‘the people,’ but he can also target particular messages to audiences that ordinarily would not be paying attention.”
This election cycle, social media has evolved to greater influence through more diverse platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook – on all of which Trump outnumbers Clinton in followers. Viral videos and controversial comments circle the internet in unprecedented ways.
Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton have had to consider not only their televised debate presence, but also their social media presence. Trump’s controversial tweets have been newsworthy on more than one occasion, while Clinton tends to stick to tweets about policy. While Clinton has used social media in more traditional ways, Trump has shown that there is more than one way to run a successful social media campaign.