Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Twitter Wins Presidential Debate

Twitter Wins Presidential Debate

Photograph via Mashable

Mitt Romney bested Barack Obama in the first presidential debate, employing the long-awaited Etch a Sketch strategy of tacking toward the ideological center, championing the middle class, and disavowing those “severe conservative” credentials he previously touted.

Unbeknownst to his advisers and the mainstream media attending the Denver duel on Wednesday, he and Barack Obama both lost the war for the hearts and minds of Americans to a six-year-old.

That is, a six-year-old social networking service called Twitter.

Twitter stole the platform from both presidential candidates thanks to how big television networks scrolled a live Twitter feed below the candidates all evening long, allowing for instantaneous response, analysis, jester, and buffoonery that set a new record for the most tweeted political event in Twitter history, with 10.3 million tweets over the 90-minute debate.

There were 67.2 million television viewers of those tweets—roughly 51 percent of the total voter turnout in 2008.

The takeaway is two-fold: Both campaigns may now be overestimating the impact of the first debate; despite Romney celebrating the victory Obama downplays his lackluster performance. The second takeaway is that the television networks, in unwittingly giving a national platform to the younger users of Twitter, unwittingly gave the microphone to this Democratic-leaning demographic (Obama carried 66% of their votes in 2008).

Buzzfeed Editor Ben Smith, at a political roundtable at the New American Foundation in New York City the next day, said he took a bit of heat for announcing on Twitter that Romney had already won less than halfway through the debate—a breach from tradition in allowing pundits to determine a winner during the postgame show. (He was outdone by progressive comedian Bill Maher, who declared a winner after 18 minutes: “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Obama looks like he DOES need a teleprompter.”)

At the same time, from the media vantage point in Denver, Smith said he hadn’t realized that major TV networks had projected the tweets for 90 minutes.

Which means: He didn’t realize that the TV networks had provided Twitter users a huge new audience!

This underscores a simple point: Romney stole the limelight from Obama and moderator Jim Lehrer, but Twitter stole the podium from everyone.

I watched the debate with several hundred people at Galapagos Art Space down in Brooklyn, and the laughter from some tweets actually drowned out the candidates. Initially, it was annoying and distracting from the serious task at hand: responsibly exercising my First Amendment voting rights. 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 simply was Twitter.

I soon joined the fun, making it a personal mission to get a tweet displayed on national TV. My tweets never got picked up, but it passed the time and even made me somewhat more focused than I would have been otherwise.

“Big Bird” dominated the Twitter discussion from the minute that Romney, 34 minutes into the debate, said he’d pay for tax breaks by cutting government subsidies to PBS, including to “Big Bird.”

The tweets began immediately:

“I worked with Big Bird. I served with Big Bird. You, sir, are no Big Bird,” tweeted @thelancearthur ofSan Francisco, echoing Lloyd Bentsen’s famous quip to Dan Quayle in the 1988 presidential debate.

Parody accounts such as @SadBigBird and @FiredBigBird popped up, with the latter quipping: “Mitt Romney favors Wall Street overSesame Street.”

“Jim Lehrer should flip both candidates the big bird. #debate” tweeted @KurczyBeast (that was one from me).

The commentary ramped up to 158,690 tweets per minute at its peak at 9:53 PM when Romney suggested a debate topic and Jim Lehrer shot back, “Let’s not.” Notably, it might have been Lehrer’s sole strong moment and Romney’s sole weak moment, yet it became a defining moment because of the Twitter response.

Most certainly, this all distracted from Romney’s solid performance. Former Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham afterward concluded that, excluding Ronald Reagan, “it was, in fact, the strongest Republican debate performance in the history of televised debates.” Todd Purdum at Vanity Fair judged that “it was Obama who flailed, and in that sense alone, failed.” Politico’s Jim Vandehei quipped, “It’s the Mitt Romney that Republicans have been pining for.” Comedian Andy Borowitz joked that the White House has launched an expedition in search of Obama’s mojo. Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger wrote the next morning: “Whoever that guy representing the GOP presidential ticket was in Denver has just given the United States a real presidential election.”

The New Republic’s Franklin Foer, who spoke with BuzzFeed’s Smith at the New America Foundation roundtable, called Romney’s performance a deft rollout of the “Etch A Sketch” strategy, while Obama’s “Do No Harm” tactic fell flat.

It was obvious that Romney had spent months hunkered down with sparring partner Rob Portman preparing for the debate and polishing off a few zingers while Obama was “busy” being president. It was Romney 2.0, Neo-Romney, Reformed Romney, Coooool Romney.

Here’s another zinger against Obama: If Romney, who looked pretty square and scattershot during the primary debates, could so soundly trounce Obama, what might Herman “The Herminator” Cain or Rick “Ooops” Perry have done to the president?

Yet here’s a comeback: Would it have mattered?

Based on what happened on Twitter, no. And based on what’s really at stake in this election—swing states—no again. Nate Cohn, who writes The New Republic’s Electionate column, noted during the roundtable that all that matters are swing states, particularly Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa, and Obama holds a lead that may be statistically impossible for Romney to overcome, barring an act of God.

Or an act of Mormon founder Joseph Smith.

And let’s not discount those otherworldly acts. In 1980, Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan in national polls by 44 percent to 40 percent on Oct. 13, and by 47 percent to 39 percent on Oct 27. A week later, Reagan won the election by 10 points, as Karl Rove wrote in his debate reaction for the Wall Street Journal. “The reality is that 2012 is a horse race and will remain so,” Rove said.

Yet from what I witnessed, that horse race won’t be decided at the debates, thanks in part to Twitter.

“If the polls don’t close,” BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith told me, “then Obama will snooze through the next debate, too.”

And in that case, I’ll be amusing myself with more tweets. Look for @KurczyBeast on a television screen near you!