Here at Thomas Jefferson Street, we watch presidential candidates debate on Twitter so you don’t have to! Yesterday we watched the launch of a new idea, created by TheTeaParty.net. The organization invited all the GOP presidential candidates to a 90-minute debate in which they’d have to answer questions from the moderators and the public, all in 140 character tweets.
Just because it was a new idea doesn’t mean it was a good idea.
The big winner wasn’t among the participants—Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Thad McCotter, or Gary Johnson. The big winner was Barack Obama. When President Obama held a Twitter Town Hall meeting a few weeks back, the public tweeted in questions and the White House chose from among them; Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey then read the questions out loud and President Obama answered them verbally, looking straight into live TV cameras. By the end of the broadcast, he had picked up no less than 30,000 new followers. Yesterday, Michele Bachmann had only 600 new followers by the end, and that was more than anyone else.
Like the White House Town Hall, the quality of the questions was very good: Would you have gone into Libya? How will you avoid continuously raising the debt ceiling? Can a president create jobs without expanding the role of the government? But here’s the difference between the two formats: “Be specific” in your answers, moderator S.E. Cupp advised. Really? Exactly how does one get “specific” about which entitlements they’d reform in 140 characters? By contrast, Obama wasn’t limited to tweeting his answers—he had the opportunity to give long, thoughtful answers (maybe too long, but that’s a different blog) that were spoken, not written. [See a slide show of the 2012 GOP contenders.]
Yesterday’s short-answer format left little room for nuance or shades of gray. “The only way to make a political debate more pointless is to hold it on Twitter,” one commenter posted. The 140-character limit seemed to feed hyperbole and sloganeering. I noticed a lot of “dog-whistling”—using short-hand references to policies as a way of throwing a bone to the base. For example, Gingrich called for auditing and reforming the Fed—a shout-out to Ron Paul supporters in his absence. (In addition to Paul, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Jon Huntsman did not participate. Luckily, they avoided the question someone named Infomaniack sent in: “How do you think the lack of judgment you have shown in participating in this debate will help you in the WH?”)
The Twitter feed alternated between too slow and too fast, and while a half-hour ticked by with only three opening tweets posted, the hilarious public comments came fast and furious. Down the right side of the page, it was a comedy smack-down with everyone from Jon Stewart to FakeJanBrewer, Gashzilla, Harry Potter, and Frodo Baggins posting sarcastic tweets. I half-expected the escaped snake from the Bronx Zoo, who tweeted all last spring, to post something. “My ship in a bottle is finished ... how ‘bout you guys?” one bored participant posted. Then, a rush of candidates’ tweets scrolled all at once, interrupting each other, disjointed, a mix of abbreviations and text-speak. “This is the most ADD experience I’ve ever had,” one person wrote. “Would love to keep up with this crazy-slow debate but Weird Al is on over at Yo Gabba Gabba,” another posted as she left for greener pastures. [Vote now: Who is your pick for the GOP 2012 nomination?]
There was too much opportunity for mischief, something the White House was able to keep out of the public eye with its format. Twitter seems to encourage one-liner, standup comedians, and boy were they out in force yesterday. It was highly entertaining.
Because the White House event was televised, there was no doubt that it really was President Obama answering the tweeted questions—with yesterday’s format, one couldn’t tell if it really was the candidate tweeting, or a bullpen full of twentysomethings back at campaign headquarters doing it for them. It didn’t help that Michele Bachmann went by “TeamBachmann” as her Twitter name—one commenter found that “fishy,” as did I. Despite his fairly substantive, concise tweets, added video links, and an invitation for folks to join him at his Google+ Hangout live video chat room afterward, Newt Gingrich didn’t know his own Twitter name on a live webchat following in the debate. That made me think he wasn’t really involved, either. The whole thing just didn’t feel authentic to me. It was like reading the closed-captions on TV, one sentence at a time, without the video or the audio, for an hour and a half, with only some of the candidates participating. No thanks. [See a photo gallery of Michele Bachmann.]
What’s next—a debate where candidates tackle foreign policy in haiku format? Answer economic questions in charades? Twitter has a valuable role to play in terms of real citizens being able to ask real questions directly of candidates and the president. But the value is in the short, direct questions—not in the abbreviated text-lingo answers. Most of us would rather eyeball a candidate on their feet in front of a crowd, or listen to them give a policy speech, or read their issue statements in full on a website, as we decide who we’re going to support.
“History called in,” one commenter posted as the debate ended, “It won’t be adding this to its files.” Let’s hope this is one new idea that goes away as fast as it scrolled in.