The first head-to-head match-up between President Obama and Mitt Romney on Wednesday is also the first presidential debate where both campaigns will be engaged in a virtual showdown on Twitter.
The Twitter debate is crucial not only because it will signal the most memorable moments of the live event, but because the social network is expected to hold the key to which candidate the public believes came out the winner.
Andrew Rasiej, a digital strategist who has worked for Democratic campaigns, went further, calling traditional spin-doctoring “obsolete.”
“Social media and Twitter has upended the power structure of the campaigns in being able to spin the results of the debate,” said Rasiej, the co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum, a group that analyzes social media in politics. “Spin-doctoring is now simply fielding social media reaction to the debates, as opposed to setting the direction of the coverage with the mainstream media.”
Neither campaign wanted to tip its hand on strategy ahead of the debates, but Romney’s digital director, Zac Moffatt, said Twitter is “going to fundamentally change rapid response and fact-checking” in debates, just as it did during the national conventions. Moffatt said the campaign expects thousands of viewers to watch the debate with one eye on a second screen.
“When debates are going on, it’s almost as much fun to keep your Twitter feed open as to watch the debate. You’re listening, but you’re also reading. That’s the reality,” said Moffatt. “If you don’t provide a two-screen experience, I think you will get left behind.”
Obama’s campaign did not respond when asked to comment on its digital strategy, but it could have a head start on Romney when it comes to social-media data and analytics, since his team has been in place since 2008.
“This is the first Twitter debate where the citizens and the candidates as well as the mainstream media are all engaged in using the platform during the debate,” Rasiej said. “The campaigns recognize this now, so they will be in fact-checking mode, and they have established seasoned teams of people to monitor Twitter during the debates to respond with facts or reactions to the opponent’s points of view and also to monitor mainstream outlets’ coverage of the debate as it happens in real time and immediately provide either rebuttals or information.”
Guiding the real-time reaction to the debates will be part of the challenge for both campaigns.
Twitter reports that this year, it tracks more tweets about the candidates every three hours on any given day than during the entire day of the first debate in 2008.
Moffatt acknowledged that the amount of conversation around the debates on Twitter will be “almost overwhelming.”
Twitter is braced for impact, too. The social network is sending a team to Denver for the debate and plans to organize the conversation with a page created especially for the event using the hashtags #debates and #DenverDebate.
Expect to see either the campaigns or other national groups promote a topic to the top of the list of 10 Twitter trends on Wednesday. This is a form of Twitter advertising each of the campaigns utilized for the first time during their respective conventions to take over the top topic on Twitter the day of their candidate’s speech.
Twitter allows only one promoted trend per day, and the company said the dates of the presidential debates have been sold. Twitter does not release information on ad buys, but said promoted trends are typically bought months in advance.
Twitter also offers targeted ad buys where the campaigns can promote individual tweets to interest groups or by search topics in order to get their message out and make sure it’s seen by the people talking about the debate. This type of messaging has been used as a method to push back against a perceived gaffe or to hammer the other side over an error.
“Twitter has a hyper-engaged political audience, which leads to these little Twitter eruptions. From that perspective, it’s a great opportunity to try to control the conversation or to capitalize on it,” said Greenberg.
Greenberg said he has watched political controversies that start — and sometimes simmer — on Twitter ultimately “ricochet around the Internet.”
“[Twitter] forces things into the national conversation,” he said. “Even people who are not on Twitter directly end up being affected by it.”
Moffatt added that he expects Twitter, Facebook and Google all to be instrumental in framing the conversation about the debates this month.
“[Twitter is] going to probably set up a lot of the way people talk about things,” he said. “I wouldn’t underestimate the role of Facebook after the debates and then Google the next day. We really count on the model of Twitter’s during the debate, Facebook’s a follow-up and Google’s kind of [the medium that] puts structure to it all.”