Our comprehensive digital guide to the first Obama Romney presidential debate

How to watch the presidential debate online

Kick the tires and light the fires, big daddy — the 2012 U.S. presidential race is about to head into its final lap. Starting at 9 p.m ET/6 p.m PT tonight, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney will take the stage at the University of Denver for the first of three presidential debates. And this year, the Web will play a greater role than ever before in how we watch the debates and react to their substance — reactions that are sure to color the narrative of the election season’s final days. To get on top of the action, here’s our complete Web user’s guide to watching this year’s inaugural presidential debate.

Get schooled

Time to learn

The best way to watch a presidential debate is to first have some clue as to what in tarnation the two candidates are blathering on about. The Wall Street Journal and The Nation — two publications with diametrically opposed editorial boards — have slapped together useful primers on the topics that will most likely come up during tonight’s head-to-head. To sum up: Money will take center stage, with economic growth, taxes, and the federal deficit all playing major parts. Health care will probably pop up, too. As will tangential topics like education and immigration reform.

To further enhance your pre-debate learning, log into Facebook’s live interview session, which includes an all-star cast of experts, from Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock to political gurus from CNN, Politico, BuzzFeed, and NPR to political science and journalism professors and Washington insiders, like Michael Beckerman, President and CEO of Internet lobbyist powerhouse The Internet Association. You can submit questions to panelists on the Wall of this page anytime. And the video stream will be available here. The festivities begin at about 5 p.m. ET/2 p.m PT.

Where to watch


For the first time ever, YouTube will live-stream the presidential and vice presidential debates for those of us unwilling to sell our first-borns to afford TV service. You can catch the debate on both YouTube’s Election Hub, and ABC News’s YouTube channel. Those of you looking for something more raw can tune into CSPAN’s live-stream, which is sure to be clean and commentary-free. And Xbox users can watch the debate, and respond to real-time polling questions, via the Xbox Live Election Hub.

Chime in, freak out

the lesson for political tweeters looking to be heard stay positive twitter

Arguably more important than the debate itself is the public’s reaction to the candidates’ proclamations. And there’s no better place to add your two cents and gauge the reaction at large, in real-time, than on Twitter. The official Twitter hashtag is #debates. But we expect this generic label to be supplemented by a number of prominent additions, including #DenverDebates, #Romney, #Obama, #Election2012, and #47percent, among others. Also, expect certain phrases or hashtags to emerge during the debates, as one candidate or the other says something noteworthy.

To get solid insight into the significance of what’s being said, as it’s being said, subscribe to this list of top U.S. political reporters on Twitter, which was compiled by Reuters social media editor Anthony De Rosa.

Update: Twitter has now launched its official Twitter.com/#debates page, where it promises to deliver “insider perspectives and your opinions” on tonight’s scrappy shindig. Twitter’s @gov team is also in Denver, and will be providing ongoing analysis of Twitter users’ reaction to the debates. Also be sure to check out the so-called Twitter Political Index, or #Twindex, which shows how Twitter users are feeling about each presidential candidate from day to day.

For even more up-to-the-second social coverage, Tumblr has set up a “live gif” blog, which should give a slightly less serious take on the debate. HuffPost Live will be covering the event, and taking questions from its audience as it happens. And VisPolitics will be gauging the tweeting public’s reaction throughout the debate, with tag clouds and tweet activity stats updating every 10 seconds.

Keep it straight

As we all know by now, politicians have a tendency to bend the truth in their direction. To make sure you don’t fall for the B.S., keep fact-checker sites PolitiFact, FactCheck, and Washington Post’s Fact Checker all on speed dial. As an alternative, download the PolitiFact app for iOS or Android.

App for that


In addition to the PolitiFact app, The New York Times has a solid Election 2012 app (iOS, Android) that’s worth the (free) download. The free Peel Smart Remote TV app (which comes pre-loaded on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, Tab 7.7, Tab 2 7.0, Tab 2 10.1, and Note 10.1, and is available for iOS and Android) allows users to easily find the debates on TV, and then “cheer” or “boo” what the candidates say, in real-time, and see how other Peel app users are responding. And for an in-depth look at the debate, and the 2012 election at large, check out the WP Politics app for iPad, which is packed full with more facts than politicians are with false promises and half-truths. The app is free to download, but true political junkies can boost their fix with a $3-per-month premium subscription that delivers an added heaping of content to gorge on.

Take the edge off


Of course, tonight’s bombardment of politics will likely take its toll on your nerves. To fortify your resolve — or just have more fun with your (over-21) debate-watching buddies — join in on one of the various presidential debate drinking games. The Phoenix New Times has one, as does The Stir, and the National Journal. Or you could simply head over to DebateDrinking.com. (Yes, that exists. Yes, it’s ridiculous.) The only problem with these games is that keeping all the rules straight can be downright daunting. So we’ve come up with our own debate drinking game. It only has one rule: Anytime you feel this whole debate thing is just absurd political theater, take a drink.

AJ Dellinger contributed reporting to this story

Images via rangizzz/winui/Shutterstock/White House/Flickr