We've seen the highs and lows of different campaigns, with characters coming and going along the way rather as in a prime-time reality show (you name it and you can probably draw parallels -- "Survivor," "Big Brother," "The Biggest Loser," "The Amazing Race," and so on). The cast of characters has been compelling and the subplots (hockey moms/pit bulls, teen pregnancies, a love child, snarly ex-Presidents on the rampage, and economic meltdown in the final reel) have generated levels of interest -- dare I say engagement? -- beyond those achieved by any election in recent history. Hopefully this will be reflected in voter turnout.
It is commonly and reasonably supposed that this time out, voters at the younger end of the demographic spectrum have been galvanized to a greater extent than previously. Similar suppositions are being made about the African-American community. Time will reveal the extent to which these levels of engagement in the period leading up to the election will be converted to an increased turnout at the polls among both groups.
In part, this increased interest has been driven by the candidates themselves and in part by issues. No doubt some of the current interest is propelled by some of the creative satire circulating, as well as the electoral snafus that have populated this contest. Whatever the case, the media has played its part in building the interest. Not just in the usual ways popular on every news channel -- endless repetition and hyper-analysis of the same point; argumentative pundits (frequently showing scant respect for the truth or the viewers who might actually want information rather than dogma); and big dramatic music, with whizzy graphics and voiceovers by beings from the planet Testosterone.
For this campaign, the fact checker has become a regular feature (a nice way for a channel or a publication to push back indirectly at false or erroneous claims -- something we'd all like to see done in person, but then the interviews would dry up). We've also seen tracking of live voter responses to candidates as they debate scroll across the bottom of the screen on CNN which is a great use of the lower third and provides another form of commentary for viewers, thereby adding to the experience.
But surely it's the emerging media outlets that have given this election the edge over previous ones. Everything from the CNN-YouTube debate format for the primaries, the use of Twitter on Current TV over the Presidential debates, the emergence of YouTube as a distribution channel for pretty much any kind of political commentary you can get onto a video, widgets, social networks, mobile applications and the rest have all taken the campaigns to the younger demographic on media platforms that are second nature to them. No longer do young people have to watch and read the news media they never normally watch or read to follow the debates. Social networks and Web 2.0 applications are being leveraged to prompt tangible involvement, donations,, sales of merchandise, voter registration, etc.
Just talking to younger voters, there can be little doubt of the extent to which their own media of choice have enabled them to engage with the election on their terms.
But looking beyond the election and the obvious question of how many of them will convert interest to votes, the next big question for both political parties, government, and the news media, will be, how best can we keep those young people involved? Aside from the political importance of this election, it seems to me that there has never been a better time for the news media to figure out how to attract, engage and retain the involvement of younger viewers / readers / users. Any of those media that are not using this current opportunity (the Olympics of American news) to answer those questions through experimentation and careful observation of what is gaining traction and what is not across all media, is seriously missing an opportunity that could massively influence their collective futures.
The same is true of the political parties -- perhaps even more so for the Democrats than the Republicans. If Obama wins and fails to retain the interest of the younger electorate during his term of office, getting that interest back for another election will be much harder after years of being in the hot seat through troubled economic times, as he juggles (as any President does) the realities of leading an Administration.
How, then, will the eventual winner of this campaign of all campaigns keep younger voters engaged with our ongoing political futures? Just as there is a big difference between winning the Presidency and being an effective and successful President, there is likely to be a huge difference between leveraging emerging media to get elected -- and doing so to keep young voters engaged post-election.
This is territory for which we have no reference points, so it will be interesting to see how things shape up.