Millions of tweets. Dozens of memes. Billions of dollars in advertising. And as the historic flood of articles and blog posts and TV reports finally subsides, it may be that none of it made a difference. Because whoever wins the White House this year will probably do so on the strength of a moment when both the professional and amateur media were shoved aside, when the candidates enjoyed a rare, old-fashioned opportunity to speak directly to the U.S. electorate.
Social media has exploded since the 2008 presidential election. Yet users of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and other platforms still need raw material to share. And like the Super Bowl – which this year scored another TV ratings record, drawing more than 111 million U.S. viewers – the presidential debates are campfires for our current day: live events that people want to experience first hand, even as they monitor them through the mediated filters of their friends' reactions.
The three 2012 presidential debates pulled in an average of 64 million viewers, up more than 11 per cent from 2008. Tellingly, the needle really only seemed to move after those encounters.
Remember: For much of the year, even as the United States and European economies shivered and convulsed, President Barack Obama appeared likely to win re-election. Yes, his job approval rating was barely above 50 per cent. But the Republican Party was sharply divided through the primaries, and even when it finally settled on Mitt Romney for its candidate, enthusiasm seemed muted.
The Democrats kept Mr. Romney playing defence with ads and surrogates painting him as an out-of-touch multimillionaire who didn't even pay his fair share of taxes. He had difficulty getting traction, especially after his infamous quip dismissing "47 per cent" of voters dominated the conversation through late September.
And then, on Oct. 3, viewers who tuned into the first debate saw a Republican candidate who was nothing like the images they'd been presented with to that point. Mr. Romney spoke compassionately of unemployed people he had met on the campaign trail. Most important, he appeared eminently human – not the robotic plutocrat who would strap the family dog to the top of a car.
Americans responded, jolting Mr. Romney's poll numbers to life. But then Mr. Obama fought back in the next two encounters, seizing his own opportunity to talk directly to voters. And while both of those final debates offered up plenty of fun material to share on social media – including Mr. Romney's "binders full of women" blunder, and Obama's crack about the Army no longer needing "horses and bayonets" – the memes burned out within days from a lack of oxygen in the hermetic echo chamber of social media.
Whoever wins the White House on Tuesday will do so because he managed to talk directly to voters. Which, in our era of noise and intensely mediated communication, may be one of the hardest things of all.