The first presidential debate of the 2012 election was the most tweeted-about event in U.S. political history. While the discussion between President Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney was fast-paced, the accompanying conversation on Twitter was lightning speed – at its peak, viewers were posting more than 158,000 tweets per minute. Tweeting during the debate gave viewers the opportunity to cheer for responses they liked, fact-check candidate statements in real time and, perhaps most importantly, take note of the questions not being asked at all.
On the night of the debate, my organization, ColorofChange, hosted a Twitter conversation using the hashtag #WatchTheRace. Watch the Race is our election cycle campaign to track the use of race in the election. That means shining a spotlight on incidents of race-baiting, calling out attempts to block minority voters from the polls and ensuring that the interests of Black Americans are a part of our national dialogue.
As the debate began, the candidates’ rhetoric didn’t seem to be resonating – not with me, not with my teammates at ColorofChange and not with the millions of people of color on Twitter. Instead of a chance to talk about concrete problems that are affecting the lives of Americans every day, the lightly moderated debate turned into a competition to see which candidate could repeat their talking points more effectively.
So during the debate, we posed a question to ColorofChange’s members on Twitter: “What issues aren’t the candidates talking about?” Our members responded quickly and decisively. Here are a few of the Tweets we received:
@MsAmber27: “Race, education, women’s rights!”
@BKMovement: “Immigration, student debt, paid sick leave for families, poverty.”
@JohnTroutMcCran: “The prison industrial complex.”
@MarthaCreedon: “Access to healthy food.”
These and other issues that define the lives of Black Americans were never addressed during the first debate. The candidates didn’t talk about our public education system, where Black children are dropping out in disproportionate numbers, or our criminal justice system, which will send one in three Black men born today to prison in his lifetime. They didn’t talk about stopping racist law enforcement practices like stop-and-frisk that target poor, urban, Black men. They never discussed the voter ID policies being pushed by conservatives around the country that would silence the voices of thousands of Black and low-income voters in November’s election.
On November 6, we face a critical choice between two very different candidates with very divergent plans for our country. We cannot make an informed choice if we do not know where the candidates stand on the issues that matter most to us and that impact our community. The three presidential debates offer a chance to put the candidates on the spot and get candid answers about their viewpoints, their values and their solutions for our country. The first debate fell far short of that mark. The vice-presidential debate last Thursday was an improvement, with the candidates addressing some important foreign policy issues, but still offered little insight into their stances on the issues that matter most.
As CNN’s Candy Crowley and CBS’ Bob Schieffer prepare to moderate the last two presidential debates in the coming days, they have an obligation to do better. They must bring the toughest questions to the candidates, because those are the questions that are most important. Allowing the candidates to spend 90 minutes throwing jabs at each other and tossing out unverified statistics will not give viewers a chance to see the deep contrast of our critical choice this November. Instead, these two moderators must focus on the issues that are impacting our everyday lives, like the ones Black viewers so desperately wanted to hear about on October 3.
In an interview last Wednesday, Ms. Crowley said that she plans to make sure that the candidates answer the critical, as-of-yet unanswered questions, saying, “It may sound [like] 90 minutes is a great amount of time but it’s really not when you’ve got two presidential candidates and such an important decision for voters to make. So you’ve got to make use of all those minutes and I don’t want to do it treading over old ground.”
Tomorrow, I hope that Ms. Crowley will follow through on her plans to break new ground by posing the tough questions and making sure the candidates give us their honest answers on the issues that will sway our votes, affect our families and define our lives.
Rashad Robinson is executive director of ColorOfChange.org. With more than 800,000 members, ColorOfChange.org is the nation’s largest Black online civil rights organization.