We're willing to bet that Monday night's Democratic presidential debate marks the first time in history a talking snowman asked candidates a question. And while the premise was silly, the question about global warming wasn't.
For the most part, the experiment by CNN to let individual Americans ask candidates questions via YouTube video clips worked. Some of the videos were obviously inserted for their entertainment value, though nearly all touched on real issues that are important to the electorate. Perhaps the biggest bonus was that the format bypassed the usual debate mediators - TV and print journalists who too often focus on the political horse race and legislative nuances. Yet even the new media needed a moderator, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who had his hands full keeping candidates' responses on point and brief.
Past presidential debates have allowed individuals to ask questions live, though with a prescreened artificiality that robbed the effort of any real connection between questioner and candidate. The YouTube videos were previewed too, but the format was surprisingly effective at eliciting heartfelt emotion from the candidates, particularly on health care.
While asking her question about affordable preventative care, a woman removed her wig to reveal the side-effects of chemotherapy for her breast cancer. And two brothers inquired about the candidates' support for Alzheimer's research as they handfed their elderly father who was obviously afflicted with the disease. Instead of dryly reciting legislative minutia, the candidates responded with clear concern for the suffering.
Even the few outlandish videos showed a side of the candidates voters don't often see, particularly their wit. Sen. Joseph Biden quickly deflected one of the joke clips, in which two Tennessee men dressed as stereotypical hillbillies asked if speculation that Al Gore might enter the race "hurt you-all's feelings." Biden, the only one to take up the challenge, deadpanned: "I think the people of Tennessee just had their feelings hurt."
The Internet has already had a significant impact on politics, particularly at the presidential level. It has made it easier to collect campaign contributions, especially from individuals giving small amounts. Political blogs can define the issues in defiance of the mainstream media's focus. And now individual voters can direct questions at the candidates in creative ways.
Another YouTube-style debate, this time for the Republican presidential candidates, is scheduled for September in St. Petersburg. It's tempting to appear modern by exaggerating the importance of the new format, but it's clearly more than a fad. If the personal video phenomenon brings new excitement, new attention and new voters to presidential politics, that's only good.