Alan Schroeder on How Twitter is Changing Presidential Debates

Presidential Debates, Alan Schroeder

“The explosive growth of Twitter brought not just a dramatic increase in the number of users in 2012 but also a radical shift in the way presidential debates are viewed, critiqued, won, and spun. By exponentially broad­ening the conversation, Twitter, along with other social media, forced campaigns and the press to reconfigure their approach to debates.”—Alan Schroeder, Presidential Debates

In the following excerpt from Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, Alan Schroeder considers the impact that Twitter had on the 2012 presidential debates and the way campaigns use social media.


The general election debates in 2008—three between Obama and McCain, one between Biden and Palin—generated a combined total of around half a million debate-related tweets. Four years later, the firrst Obama–Romney debate alone inspired 10.3 million tweets, making it the most tweeted-about event in American political history up to that point, and the fourth most tweeted-about telecast of any kind. By the time the series ended in 2012, some 27.5 million debate-related tweets had been sent— times as many as in the previous presi­dential race.

Impressive as these statistics are, they tell only part of the story. The explosive growth of Twitter brought not just a dramatic increase in the number of users in 2012 but also a radical shift in the way presidential debates are viewed, critiqued, won, and spun. By exponentially broad­ening the conversation, Twitter, along with other social media, forced campaigns and the press to reconfigure their approach to debates.

A key effect of Twitter was to transplant the locus of debate reaction from after to during the event, with live responses delivering an ongo­ing nationwide verdict. According to Democratic debate adviser Ron Klain, “It definitely moves the power over how this event is interpreted from a postdebate spin game to an in-the-debate Twitter game.” What was once a closed loop—journalists covering the debate, campaigns seeking to influence that coverage—is now open to the public at large. And the public has eagerly jumped on board.

“Twitter has become the natural companion to the televised experi­ence,” according to Adam Sharp, head of government and elections for Twitter in Washington, D.C. “It has taken us back to the idea of every­body gathering together on the couch to share the experience of watch­ing this pivotal event in history—but now, that couch is big enough to .t the whole country.”

Shortly after the first Obama–Romney debate, Dashiell Bennett of the Atlantic summed up the shift in an online post entitled “Twitter Won the Presidential Debate.” “The idea of watching such a key national event without the instant reactions of your fellow tweeters has become almost unthinkable,” Bennett said. “If you’re just watching on TV and not tak­ing part in (or at least following) the simultaneous online conversation, then you might as well not even be paying attention at all.”

Debate reaction on Twitter and other social media took some unfore­seen turns. Bluefin Labs, a social analytics company in Cambridge, Mas­sachusetts, conducted a study of social media conversations as part of its Crowdwire initiative, which focused on the presidential election of 2012. According to Crowdwire, more women than men commented about the first debate by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. “It pulled in a lot of women who don’t typically talk about political shows,” Crowd-wire concluded; “younger women in particular.” Over the course of the remaining debates, women continued to outnumber men as social media commenters.

Researchers found that nearly one in ten of those who wrote on so­cial media about the opening Obama–Romney debate were tweeting or posting about a televised event for the first time. “The Super Bowl and several entertainment-awards shows have drawn responses from large numbers of newbies,” according to Crowdwire. “But this is the first time a political event has sparked such a large in. ux.” To a great extent, debate reaction on Twitter centered upon specific phrases and moments. Mitt Romney’s reference to Big Bird inspired more than 250,000 tweets. President Obama’s “horses and bayonets” line sparked more than 105,000, and Joe Biden’s use of the word malarkey produced 30,000. Romney’s oddly constructed phrase “binders full of women,” intended to accentuate his commitment to gender diversity, rose to number one on Twitter’s trending topics. Each of these examples became amplified both during and after the debates in parody accounts, Facebook groups, web searches, and visual spoofs.

Twitter users also opined vigorously about the moderators. In the first debate, when Mitt Romney requested a topic change and Jim Lehrer quipped “Let’s not,” Twitter lit up with 158,690 tweets per minute—the biggest response of the night. Several hours before the second Obama– Romney debate, Adam Sharp of Twitter noted in an online preview post that “Twitter conversation about [moderator Candy] Crowley is already crescendoing. Her role is also sparking discussion given the high level of conversation and opinion about the two moderators to date, Jim Lehrer and Martha Raddatz.”

Twitter applied its “Twitter Political Index” to the debate moderators in 2012, tracking their standing among users of the service before and after each debate—just as it rated the candidates themselves. Lehrer dropped nine points after moderating the first Obama–Romney match; after the vice presidential debate, Raddatz saw her number rise by twelve.

Which is not to suggest that Twitter users were concerned exclusively with performance critiques and one-liners. Substantive matters also resonated—150,000 tweets per minute in the first debate on the topic of Medicare, to cite one example. Even viral catchphrases like “Big Bird” and “horses and bayonets” led to serious exchanges about the funding of public television and the shifting priorities of military spending. “That moment that may have gotten all the buzz is still really just a fraction of what people are talking about,” said Twitter’s Adam Sharp. “The bulk of the audience is interested in substantive issues. You don’t get to a tweet volume around the 2012 debates that exceeded that of the Olympics and the Super Bowl just on frivolous reactions.”

As for Twitter’s political effects, early research suggests that debate- tweeting may be a case of preaching to the choir. After the Biden–Ryan vice presidential match, the social media marketing company SocialFlow compiled tweets that conclusively declared one or the other candidate as having won—an almost even number. Researchers found a striking degree of polarization between the two camps: those who thought Biden won followed an entirely different group of Twitter sources than those who thought Ryan won, with virtually no overlap between the two. “The narrative is that technology is the great democratizer,” said Social-Flow executive Gilad Lotan, “yet we are divided as ever into our familiar neighborhoods.”


“Walk into the filing center at a presidential debate and you’ll see hundreds of reporters seated at tables doing two things: Watching the action on TV and monitoring Twitter on their laptops,” wrote Dana Milbank of the Washington Post during the presidential campaign of 2012. “They are hard at work on one of the most elaborate exercises ever undertaken in groupthink.”

In Milbank’s view, the promise of Twitter and other social media—to diversify the debate conversation by adding new voices to the mix—got subverted. Instead of an array of perspectives, the shared conversation on Twitter produced a monolithic, self- reinforcing response, especially from journalists. “Not too long ago, the wire services, broadcast networks and newspapers covered major political events differently,” Milbank said. “Each outlet had its own take and tidbits. But now everybody is operating off the same script and, except for a few ideological outliers, the product is homogenous.”
Similar misgivings were expressed by Peter Hamby, a political reporter for CNN who after the election of 2012 spent a semester at Harvard de­ journalists and political professionals about the campaign. “No one is complaining about the revolutionary gateway to news and information that Twitter provides,” Hamby concluded. “But plenty of people in politics are anxious about the way the Twitter conversation thrives on incrementalism, self-involvement and snark.”

As Milbank and Hamby observe, Twitter prizes the pithy riposte over the nuanced observation, the freeze frame over the big picture. A Pew Research Center study of two months of media coverage of the general election presidential campaign of 2012 found Twitter to be the “most negative” of all the news platforms analyzed. “ Every week on Twitter re­sembled the worst week for each candidate in the mainstream press,” wrote the study’s authors. Inevitably this negative tone attached itself to the debates, whose competitive stakes and high visibility intensify al­ready passionate viewership.
Twitter’s influence in the debates of 2012 extended not just to journalists and other users of the service, but to traditional audiences watching the programs on television. During the live telecasts various networks displayed on-screen tweets, just as Current TV had done four years earlier. As before, the tweets competed for attention with the words of the debaters. Stephen Kurczy, in the online publication Con­struction Magazine, described watching the first Obama–Romney debate as one of several hundred spectators at a performing arts venue in Brooklyn, where “the laughter from some tweets actually drowned out the candidates.” At first, Kurczy found himself annoyed. “Then, as I grew frustrated with Mitt Romney’s jiving around his $5 trillion tax gap and confused with Barack Obama’s stuttering responses, I realized that the most interesting thing on TV was Twitter.”

In partnership with Twitter, Fox News in 2012 displayed an on-screen graphic that measured the volume of Twitter conversation moment by moment for the duration of the live event. A counter at the bottom of the screen tracked the number of tweets per minute, giving television viewers a clear visualization of how the debate was playing in real time, and which comments were hitting home with the tweeting public.

This citizen response, in turn, influences professional debate assessments. According to Adam Sharp of Twitter, “journalists can be even more forceful in their follow-up because they are backed by this dem­onstrated public sentiment as opposed to the whims of one person sit­ting in the studio.” In Sharp’s view, the wisdom of the crowd as expressed on Twitter gives reporters “an opportunity to be a more effective proxy for the public interest.”


Like journalists, campaign professionals have also embraced Twitter. “I think the challenge of 2012 was that Twitter adoption was prob ably exceeding our comprehension of how to use it,” said Zachary Moffatt, digital director of Romney for President. Unlike Obama’s campaign, Romney’s team had gained invaluable experience with the platform during the long and grueling Republican primary season. “I think that was probably an advantage we had over the Obama group, because they hadn’t done twenty primaries like we had,” Moffatt said. “We learned what you had to have.”

The debate preparations by Romney’s campaign included a 179-page document organized by topic that itemized potential responses to be tweeted during the debate. “Literally as Obama was saying something, then we would have a tweet pre-approved, plus or minus a few words, and a graphic that went with it,” according to Moffatt. “We were doing test runs on the debates every weekend for five weeks before, so we would be ready for debate night.”

By contrast, Obama’s forces were caught flat-footed in the first debate by the groundswell of tweets criticizing the president’s performance. “Even the Obama rapid response team appeared at a loss on exactly how to .re back, sending .ve or so press releases that didn’t stick,” wrote BuzzFeed’s Michael Hastings. About the only break Obama caught on Twitter during the opening debate came from Mitt Romney’s ill-advised reference to Big Bird, which diverted the spotlight from Obama to Rom­ney. (Two days after the debate, Obama’s campaign dispatched a cos­tumed Big Bird to a rally for Mitt Romney, bearing the placard “Crack down on Wall Street, not Sesame Street.”)

For the subsequent debates, Obama’s campaign command consider­ably beefed up its Twitter efforts. Hoping to persuade journalists that the first debate had been an aberration, the president’s strategists pushed a comeback narrative. From the opening minutes of the second program, it was clear that Obama would assume an aggressive posture; in his first two answers, Obama essentially called his opponent a liar, and the mood did not lighten from there. As part of its Twitter strategy, Obama’s cam­paign also urged supporters to send positive tweets, force-multiplying the drama that played out onstage.

For the third debate, Obama crafted a line specifically to capitalize on Twitter’s appetite for the clever turn of phrase: “horses and bayonets,” a vivid image deployed by the president to emphasize his opponent’s outmoded thinking on military spending. According to Obama’s adviser Ron Klain, “We came up with the horses and bayonets line because we thought that would be a hashtag on Twitter. We thought it would drive the Twittersphere.” Before the debate, Obama’s prep crew alerted the campaign’s social media team that “horses and bayonets” was loom­ing on the horizon. “There’s a part of deb prep that’s about getting ready for the post-debate period,” Klain said, “and up until 2012 it was all about getting ready to prove your candidate is right, lining up the points for the spinners. But in 2012 that morphs into a conversation with your digital media and your social media team about what kind of things to drive on Twitter.”

As part of their response, both presidential campaigns purchased trending Twitter terms as advertising vehicles while the debates were still under way. According to Adam Sharp of Twitter, “Less than 30 seconds after Mitt Romney uttered the words ‘binders full of women,’ the Obama campaign had an ad running on Twitter against that particular search phrase. Likewise the Romney campaign was up in less than 30 seconds when Biden said ‘malarkey.’ ” This stepped-up pace, Sharp said, repre­sents a dramatic change in the way campaigns seek to leverage specific debate moments. “If you think about the cycle in years past, of how long it would have taken a campaign to take an opponent’s sound bite in a debate, package that into an ad, and get it onto the air in front of a few million people, you would have been talking about a cycle of days. And now from start to finish that cycle was complete in less than a minute.”

In less revolutionary ways, the campaigns also used Twitter for pro­motional purposes. During the vice presidential debate, Obama’s aides tweeted a photo of the president on board Air Force One watching Joe Biden and Paul Ryan in action. For that same debate, Romney’s cam­paign tweeted pictures of the Republican candidate sharing pizza with the winner of a “Win a Bite with Mitt” contest; the woman, identi. ed only as “Christine B,” had donated .fteen dollars in order to compete for a chance to watch Biden–Ryan alongside the nominee. A few hours before the debate, Paul Ryan tweeted a shot of himself with his seven- year-old son, Sam. The caption: “Great pep talk with one of my most trusted advisors.”

1 Response

Leave a Reply