What: Presidential debate on domestic issues between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Airing live on major networks and cable news stations, and streamed online
When President Obama faces Republican challenger Mitt Romney on Wednesday, Amber Boydstun will be watching — through the eyes of college students across the country.
Some 12,000 students have been enlisted to give their real-time reactions using a smartphone app co-created by Boydstun, an assistant professor of political science at UC Davis.
“To my knowledge, this is the first real-time reaction data we can get in a mass way,” she said on Tuesday. “We’ll have thousands of observations, which for political scientists is very exciting.”
The researchers plan to drill deeper in the weeks and months ahead.
They’re especially interested in how the audience responds when Obama and Romney use two often effective tools of political rhetoric: agenda-setting and issue-framing.
The researchers also will have two other pools of data.
The University of Denver, which is hosting tonight’s debate, plans an outdoor watch party at which upwards of 5,000 people will be invited to use the app. The researchers are attempting to recruit groups of more religious voters, too.
The year-old app project is also the work of Rebecca Glazier, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock; Matthew Pietryka, a lecturer and postdoctoral fellow in political science at UCD; and Philip Resnik, a professor of linguistics and computer science at the University of Maryland.
Resnik assembled the tech team that built from scratch the React Labs app, which Boydstun said also could be used to gauge the real-time response to other sorts of events — be it an Academy Awards ceremony, a State of the Union address or a football game. Resnik also has formed a startup company to commercialize the app.
Because of limited capacity, the app isn’t yet available for download by the general public.
Boydstun and her colleagues have been gearing up for the debate by testing their system. She has another worry, however.
“What if we went through all of this and find that debates don’t matter? This is an ongoing question. So far the answer is, ‘It depends.’ ”
History shows that debates don’t often boost a campaign — but a bad performance can sink one.
“I’m selfishly hoping we get to see some reaction to something unusual,” Boydstun said.
Wednesday’s presidential debate on domestic issues will air live on major networks and cable news stations and be streamed online at 6 p.m.
The remaining schedule: Oct. 11, vice presidential debate from Centre College in Danville, Ky.; Oct. 16, presidential candidate town hall on domestic and foreign policy from Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.; Oct. 22, presidential debate on foreign policy from Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.
— Reach Cory Golden at [email protected] or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden