Welcome to the new world of presidential debates—one in which social networks have an outsized ability to drive the narrative both during and after the high-stakes contests.
The result—this election year, at least—has been the political pundit class and voters alike working overtime to filter campaign messages through the din.
“There’s just so much noise now compared to what it used to be; I think Twitter is its main domain,” says Democratic strategist Tad Devine.
The real-time debate spin can be maddening, as Stu Rothenberg pointed out on his own Twitter feed Monday night, tweeting “I wish the Romney and Obama spinners would just be quiet for 90 minutes.”
Not a chance.
Prior to last night’s debate, and the two that preceded it, flacks for both campaigns played the expectations game hoping to shape post-debate coverage. During the debates, tweets and Facebook posts featuring fact checks and the spin of the moment came fast and furious from both sides. And out of the Obama-Romney slugfests poured stories with vastly different takes on whether likability, experience or some other factor was the cause of a candidate’s success or failure.
“The press gets caught up in the moment, and reporters find it hard to put themselves in voters’ shoes,” says Devine, who was a senior advisor on Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.
The result for voters who may be tuned into social networks, he argues, is that the cacophony of pundits’ voices is numbing. Whereas the press used to formulate its narrative 10 minutes after the debate, Twitter allows for real-time interpretation throughout, often with mixed results.
The new social networking reality also helps explain why the first debate provided such a pivotal boost to Romney, while the second and third debates remain mired in conflicting opinions. When a split-screen view of the first debate showed a down-and-out Mitt Romney visibly outperforming President Obama, voters had something tangible to back up what they were reading on their news feeds.
“The spin that works is the spin that’s believable and naturally observable,” says Tyler Harber, Republican consultant and founder of Harcom Strategies. “That means whatever the audience would’ve picked up on their own, without anyone helping them figure out.”
While the second and third debates saw some powerful moments that Twitter latched onto—think hash tags like #bindersfullofwomen and #horsesandbayonets—if you were scanning tweets to find a consensus on who won or what messages actually broke through, you’d have better luck with a magic 8-ball.
Still, Harber says campaigns have become adept at managing the messaging flood.
“The number of communications channels does dilute the ability of each campaign to spin a specific message, but what generally makes it into the print, broadcast and social media circles is accurate,” he says. “An effective communications plan can strongly influence social media channels.”
And when played right, campaigns can effectively use their social media channels to capitalize.
“Because of social media,” says Democratic strategist Jason Stanford, “voters aren’t waiting to be spoon-fed information anymore.”