How social media is revolutionizing debates

Editor’s Note: Dan Pfeiffer is a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama and served in the White House in a variety of roles, including communications director. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Story highlights

Dan Pfeiffer says a half-century of conventional wisdom about debates has been turned on its head by the rise of social media

Candidates and their teams look for moments that will play well and aim to shape the Twitter conversation, he says

CNN  — 

Presidential debates have been governed by the same norms since the first televised debate in 1960: look good, don’t make a mistake, stay solid for the entire debate, and then have your campaign spin like hell as soon as it ends.

Dan Pfeiffer

Most of the political world has thought about the debates the same way since John Kennedy used a smoother TV performance to best Richard Nixon in that debate, but we have now reached a tipping point, where social media has changed how debates are conducted, prepared for, judged and spun.

Here are four ways the Internet and social media have changed presidential debates.

1. Social media makes the debate a communal experience

Because debates don’t have live commentary like sporting events, debates were watched essentially in a black box. Viewers and journalists formed their opinion in isolation. Judgments from the “experts” on who won or lost or made mistakes wouldn’t come until after the debate for some and not ‘til the next morning for most.

Social media has changed all that. Opinions are now formed communally, and people are now seeing real-time analysis on social media from political pundits, reporters, partisans, and their friends and neighbors. How these influencers react on social media can cement and exacerbate initial impressions.

In 2012, during the first general election debate, in which Barack Obama famously performed less than well, we saw a distinct difference between people who were watching in focus groups without access to their mobile phones and the general public. The focus group participants thought Obama wasn’t great, but those who had seen experts and even famous Obama supporters like Andrew Sullivan give their downbeat appraisals thought the President was terrible.

What is said on Twitter and Facebook during the debate is almost as important as what is said in the debate.

2. It’s about the moments

Smart campaigns are spending as much time game planning moments as they are drilling answers. The goal is to have the moment, the exchange, or the pithy one-liner that everyone is tweeting about, sharing on Facebook, and generally discussing on social media. Campaigns aren’t just thinking about how the press will respond, but how the Internet will respond – how can they go viral?

While debate audiences are way up this cycle, it’s important to remember that only a fraction of the voters campaigns hope to motivate and persuade will be tuning in for the actual debate.

The Internet will be a primary way many Americans interact with the debate, so if no one is tweeting, Facebooking, or Googling about your candidate in the hours and days after the debate, you failed to move the needle. Even though most pundits declared Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Carly Fiorina the winner, they saw small, if any gains, because the Donald Trump-Megyn Kelly fracas crowded them out of the discussion

The search for virality, however, is a double-edged sword. A bad moment – like when Rick Perry forgot which government agencies he wanted to eliminate in 2011 – can end a campaign.

3. Twitter is the new spin room

In the old days, campaigns flooded the designated spin room the second the debate ended with staff and high-level surrogates to explain why their candidate won (even if they didn’t).

As a onetime spinner, I can tell you we literally ran into the room to beat the other candidates’ spinners to the awaiting media hordes. This was the first chance to try to affect the judgment of the political intelligentsia. Now, it’s basically all over but the shouting before the first person sprints into the spin room. You need your surrogates tweeting during the debate, not spinning afterward. Reporters are now analyzing and critiquing the debate as it happens, so campaigns need to be responding, spinning and sharing on Twitter in real time; it is the only way to shape the perception.

4. The first 20 minutes matter most

The Internet has created a race to be the first to render judgment. In 2012, Ben Smith of Buzzfeed declared Mitt Romney the winner of the first general election debate less than an hour into a two-hour debate. And the social media traffic for the debate – like TV viewership – is highest early in the debate, so a moment that happens earlier in the debate will be able to ride the wave of that higher traffic for longer than one that happens later in the debate.

In that intense social media environment, things tend to snowball, building momentum throughout the debate. In 2012, the idea that Obama was doing poorly in the first debate became accepted fact long before the debate was over. A candidate who doesn’t make an impression early will be left out of the all-important social media conversation.

This shift in debate dynamics seems incredibly chaotic and messy and seems like it treats the massively consequential decision about our next commander-in-chief like the cat videos that sometimes dominate the Internet. However, in many ways this has democratized the process by giving the public a chance to view and participate in the process like never before.

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