Did Twitter Decide the Presidential Debates?

October 22, 2012

Shortly before the first Presidential debate, I got an e-mail urging me to tweet three specific questions to Mitt Romney. The subject line read, “The debate will be decided on Twitter.”

Oh sure, I thought. A bunch of us tweet Romney and he’ll address these questions. “How do you plan to create jobs when you keep shipping them overseas?” Etc.

But this wasn’t what the sending organization had in mind by deciding the debate. It had borrowed its subject line from a recent Politico post, which itself was borrowing from a couple of other sources.

They were saying that real-time tweets would shape the post-debate story reporters would tell.

At the very least, the initial Twitter conversation among political reporters would decide who won and who lost, Nathan Gonzales at The Rothenberg Political Report predicted.

New York Times political blogger Michael Shear also views Twitter as a tool to influence debate coverage, but for the campaigns, not the likes of thee and me and only when neither candidate is the obvious winner.

Both Gonzales and Shear focus on what we could call insider conversations. The promise in my e-mail was that I, along with lots of other tweeters, could interject ourselves and thus shape the post mortems.

We’ve no way of knowing, I suppose, what prompts journalists to fix on particular story lines — other than obvious things like what they and their editors think is newsworthy, e.g., winners and losers, and the political bias of the source they write for.

There may, however, be some limited evidence for the influence of mass tweeting.

For example, we know that some major progressive organizations tweeted fact-checks as the first two debates were going on. They’ve got reporters following them — and others who presumably broadcast the more notorious non-facts to their own followers.

And it’s certainly the case that we’ve had a spate of columns on misstatements, distortions, evasions and Romney’s latest disclaimers of positions he’d espoused, even just a few weeks ago.

But they weren’t the post-debate narrative. And they don’t show much of anything about how we grassroots tweeters can shape — let alone decide — a major political debate.

Which brings me to a somewhat different Twitter campaign.

Greg Kaufmann at The Nation launched it with a hashtag — #TalkPoverty — a shorthand, as hashtags must be, for an effort to “push the issue of poverty into the mainstream political debate.”

The post I’m linking to here was the first in a series that focused on questions posed by experts. We could tweet the articles and/or the individual questions, of course.

The Half in Ten Campaign called on its supporters to tweet about poverty issues, using the #TalkPoverty hashtag. It even sponsored a webinar to get novices up to speed on Twitter and created a prefab tweet for anyone who was still timid or just plain busy.

Kaufmann and others, including Half in Ten, gave us the Twitter handles, i.e., user names, for the debate moderators so that we could tweet factoids and questions directly to them.

Well, there sure were a lot of #TalkPoverty tweets — a new crop every day for weeks. I’m told they reached, on average, nearly 350,000 Twitter followers a day — twice as many on debate days.

Anyone who watched the first debate knows what happened — or rather, didn’t happen.

One use each of the words “poor” and “poverty” — both by Romney and neither in the context of saying what, if anything, he’d do to help the people he fleetingly referred to.

Even a broader content analysis, including words and phrases like “low-income,” “welfare,” “food stamps” and “Medicaid,” found that only 10% of the candidates’ statements focused on poverty.

On the other hand, the virtual silence on poverty as a policy issue did become one of the post-debate storylines — not, of course, as often told and retold as the emergence of yet another Romney, the President’s apparent funk or the mystifying tax numbers.

Some columnists were prompted to write about the issue that “went missing,” as the Washington Post‘s Jonathan Capehart put it.

Did this secondary narrative — Twitter-shaped or otherwise — influence the content of the second Presidential debate? Did the ongoing tweet stream itself have an impact?

Not so as you’d notice. But then the second debate consisted largely of answers — or talking points passed off as answers — to questions from the audience.

Not much interest in the plight of poor people there, we gather.

Or perhaps moderator Candy Crowley, who chose the questions, thought that the rest of us wouldn’t be all that interested, judging from her many years of experience as a political reporter and post-debate narrative creator.

Kaufmann thinks that Obama did talk poverty, though without using the p-word.

The policies he cites would certainly be better for poor people than Romney’s tax cuts for small businesses. But I think it’s a stretch to view them as policies specifically designed to fight poverty.

Perhaps, as Kaufmann’s expert interviewee says, the word “poverty” evokes such negative stereotypes that candidates can’t break through if they use it.

If that’s true, then doubly so for proclaiming a renewed war on poverty.


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