So CNN and YouTube seem to believe they’re doing something revolutionary with these primary debates. Finally, the average citizen will have the chance to speak directly to the candidates, to ask the questions the media have ignored for so long. Moreover, the debate seems to be the latest in a long line of attempts to energize the youth vote.

So far, the results are wildly unimpressive. Just over 1,000 questions have been submitted so far, a depressingly low number when you consider the tens of thousands of videos uploaded to YouTube every day. And that includes people who have submitted multiple questions or re-submitted touched-up versions of their original questions. In a sense, the general trend of voter apathy seems to have spilled over into this arena. It is mostly the younger demographics who use YouTube so extensively, and these demographics rank among the lowest in voter participation. Considering this sorry state of affairs, the piddling number of submissions should be no surprise.

And yet, the pool of submitted entries reveals some intriguing trends.

Of course, there is the predictable batch of self-promoters who focus more on plugging their websites than asking thoughtful questions. But the questions that succeed are the more specific ones, many of which reference obscure legislative measures and ask pointed questions about pet causes. Some topics are more popular than others. Global warming is number one, followed by the Darfur crisis and gay rights. Compelling questions include one from a man with Lou Gehrig’s Disease about medical marijuana and a plea for action in Darfur filmed at a camp for Sudanese refugees.

Kids are a common prop, with many struggling through sophisticated, wordy questions obviously written by axe-grinding parents. Or maybe there really are five-year-olds out there with nuanced positions on the alternative minimum tax.

The question is, what will CNN do with the questions? Will producers choose challenging questions, or favor more hackneyed inquiries that do no better than a regular debate question, eliciting a canned, focus-grouped response from the candidates?

You’ll also find a batch of questions form prominent South Carolinians, all focusing on education, including contributions from Jim Hodges, Inez Tenenbaum, Dick Harpootlian, Robert Ford, and a former S.C. Teacher of the Year. They’re obviously trying to prove they’re hip and conversant in the language of the internet age, but they’d be better off starting a 529 or something.

An overriding theme that emerges from the pool of questions is voters’ frustration with politics as usual. One defiantly asks, “Why should I believe you?” Others question the candidates’ loyalty to big donors such as the health insurance industry.

Hopefully the debate will resolve whether voters can succeed where reporters and the mass media have failed: forcing politicians to give straightforward answers to the tough questions. Many seem to believe they can. It’s endearing to watch these ordinary joes earnestly try to pin these politicians down. “Answer that with one word only: yes or no,” one man orders. “I know that’s difficult since you’re all politicians.”

While the candidates all may be politicians, the debate just might prove it’s not politics as usual. — Josh Rosenthal H

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