- - Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Early on in the first presidential debate, Donald Trump sniffled repeatedly. Asked about it later, the Republican nominee denied he was nursing a cold or the flu, and instead blamed the sounds on the microphone.

Days later, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that Mr. Trump’s microphone did have a slight malfunction. But his apparent constant sniffling created an impression with viewers that no after-the-fact announcement can undo.

That was exactly 56 years to the day since America’s first nationally televised presidential debate, between Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy.

Nixon was recovering from an illness, and he showed up looking exhausted. He refused a makeup artist. Kennedy, by contrast, looked youthful and, well, presidential. He was the very picture of what Mr. Trump might call “stamina.”

Before 1960, physical appearance at the debates hardly mattered. Debates were broadcast only on radio. Nixon was still playing by those old rules, from a time when images were not transmitted across the airwaves.

History records that those who listened to the debate on radio said Nixon won the debate. Those who watched it on TV, then still a relatively new medium (and only in black-and-white), scored it in favor of Kennedy. History also records a Kennedy win in November 1960, in a squeaker that arguably was made possible by JFK’s appearance of readiness.

Now, fast-forward 14 presidential election cycles to another relatively new medium; namely, digital media. A telegenic presence is still required, but it is no longer enough to win. Candidates need to enter the digital world looking like Kennedy, not caught off-guard like Nixon.

Last week, television pundits agreed almost unanimously that Hillary Clinton won the debate. Online, however, Donald Trump dominated the conversation — whether he won the debate or not. According to Twitter’s own tally, 62 percent of all users’ conversations — good or bad — during and immediately after the debate were about Mr. Trump, while just 38 percent were about Mr. Clinton.

The voters this time are in front of their phone, tablet and laptop screens as much or more than they are in front of their TV screens. The campaigns have adapted to the technology, making increasingly greater use of digital media to reach potential voters where they are.

In 2008 and 2012, Big Data gave Democrat Barack Obama a distinct edge over his Republican challengers, John McCain and Mitt Romney, respectively.

Republicans and conservatives have been playing catch-up to their liberal and Democratic counterparts ever since. The right wing is catching up quickly in many areas. Many Republican legislators are on Twitter, and the GOP is starting to harness the power of Big Data. Yet there’s still a large digital-media gap in the area of online petitioning.

The internet might be the world’s most powerful vehicle for freedom of information, communication and transparency. All of those things speak to conservative and libertarian goals. You could say that right-of-center voters are natural winners in the digital age — but the winning hasn’t started yet.

Online petitioning provides conservative activists with the opportunity to interact with government, not just once every two years at election time, but as often as they want — and on issues of their own choosing.

Those issues need not necessarily be political; they could just as easily be social issues or pertain to the actions of industries, corporations, unions, sports teams and leagues or — you name it. One StandUnited user even started a petition to get a favorite TV show on Netflix.

The petitions with political topics can target government at any level, from a county school board all the way up to Congress and the president. Some of the most successful petitions target a specific government agency. We the People do not vote for secretary of state, Internal Revenue Service commissioner or countless other appointed positions, but we can petition those people to make changes in their respective departments.

The idea of writing or signing a petition might seem “old school” in an age when we hashtag our political opinions and take selfies with candidates. From Colonial times all the way up to the 1980s, petitioning required willing volunteers to stand on busy streets to solicit signatures from passers-by. Now, anyone can write or sign a petition with a smartphone, in a matter of seconds. Kennedy and Nixon would be amazed.

Angela Morabito is senior campaign organizer for StandUnited.

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