GOP Twitter Debate: Dose Of Attention Deficit?

GOP presidential hopefuls use 140 characters or less to answer the question: "As president, how will you avoid continually raising the debt ceiling?"

GOP presidential hopefuls use 140 characters or less to answer the question: "As president, how will you avoid continually raising the debt ceiling?" Amy Ta/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Amy Ta/NPR

During Thursday's first presidential debate on Twitter, six Republicans tweeted about jobs, the debt ceiling and the U.S. role in Libya. They criticized Obama and shared links to their videos and websites. Host Michel Martin discusses the debate's hits and misses with U.S. News and World Report's Mary Kate Cary and Engage D.C.'s Jordan Raynor.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up could Detroit be the new Brooklyn? After years of a symbol of urban decay Detroit has become a destination for young artists and entrepreneurs. We'll hear from a new generation that's bringing a spark to the Motor City. We'll have that conversation in a few minutes but first if Twitter can transform how we talk to each other can it change how our leaders debate?

The first ever presidential debate on Twitter was held yesterday hosted by a group called the TeaParty.net. Six Republican candidates traded tweets on everything from the debt ceiling to jobs to find out who was in and who was out and how well it works to debate in 140 characters or less. We are joined once again by Mary Kate Cary. She's a former presidential speech writer for President George H.W. Bush. She's now a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report.

She's a regular on our program. She's here in Washington, DC. Also with us, Jordan Raynor. He's the vice president of communications for Engage DC. That's a group that handles social media strategy for Republican candidates. Welcome to you both, thanks for joining us.

MARY CATE CARY: Thanks for having us.

JORDAN RAYNOR: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Mary Kate I'll start with you. Let's talk about who participated and who didn't and does it say anything about, you know, who was in and who was out?

CARY: The ones who participated were Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and then two that I was not familiar with Congressman - Thad McCotter and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. The ones who did not participate were Romney, Mitt Romney...

MARTIN: Um-hum.

CARY: Paul, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman. Oh, and Tim Pawlenty. And so, I don't think it matters that much who was there and who wasn't because I kind of doubt they're going to do this again.

MARTIN: And Jordan what about you, does it matter and didn't your firm has advised Tim Pawlenty, correct?

RAYNOR: Yeah, that's correct and no, I mean, you know, as for...

MARTIN: Does it matter?

RAYNOR: ...you know, at this stage in the debate candidates pick and choose the debates they want to participate in. You know, it's interesting, the two candidates that have widely been considered leading online, you know, Romney and Pawlenty there was a, you know, there was a piece this week about Romney's ad spend being higher than any other candidate in the race and there was a piece last week about Pawlenty's used a social media in his tweet note address about American jobs.

So, no, I don't think it really matters and I don't think it's a reflection of where these campaigns are online, but it was interesting to see the candidates that did show up and watch this unfold in real time.

MARTIN: Well, so, Jordan just stick with us for a minute there. What is the value of this kind of experience?

RAYNOR: The value is I believe to the voters and being able to for an hour and a half have access to potentially the next president of the United States and be able to ask questions directly at them. Now, we can debate, you know, the format and which questions were selected and how these questions rose to the top which I'm sure we'll get into but...

CARY: Yes.

RAYNOR: You know, this is the democratization of information, right? We're living in it everyday and having open access to politicians. Now, it's up to the politicians themselves as to whether or not they choose to engage with individuals and individual citizens but, you know, it is an important milestone. You know, we had twitter at the White House a couple weeks ago and having questions of real people after the president of the United States and now we're having questions posted by real people to potential presidents of the United States and that's an exciting thing.

MARTIN: So, Mary Kate, what were some of the stand out moments for you?

CARY: Oh, there were so many.

MARTIN: You were just telling me that you were just laughing your head off.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGH)

CARY: Well, for those of you who were unable to join us yesterday the set up was on the left side of the screen. There were questions from the moderators to the candidates and on the right side of the screen there was an ongoing live feed of comments and questions from the public and the good news was the questions were good. I think I agree with you Jordan that that's a valuable thing and I think it was valuable that the, you know, there was a Pew survey from 2008.

Seven out of ten people online these days are under the age of 35 and I think that was what was going on here is they were trying to capture that crowd. The problem was that the site got overwhelmed and so as the candidates were trying to respond there would be incredible slow periods and then all of a sudden a rush of tweets that you couldn't read fast enough. One commenter said it was the most ADD experience she'd ever had in her life.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGH)

CARY: Then you'd sit and wait and wait and wait and somebody else wrote in and said, hey I just finished making my shipment of bottle, how about you guys?

You know, and then as the answers came in they were too short obviously, they were a 140 characters. So, there was no room for nuance or gray matter or anything like that. There was a lot of what we could call dog whistling where people were putting stuff in like Newt Gingrich had one about getting rid of the Fed and I thought that was clearly throwing a bone to the Ron Paul supporters because Ron Paul wasn't there.

There was comments about how this increases the hyperbole instead of restraining it and I thought that was a very wise comment. There would be questions like how do we prevent the debt ceiling from being raised repeatedly? Be specific.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGH)

CARY: Well, come on, you know, there was way too much opportunity for mischief on the right hand side of the page. John Stewart was actually tweeting in. People with names like Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins. Somebody alerted everyone that Weird Al Yankovic was on over at Yo Gabba Gabba.

You know, this kind of stuff. And the final problem was you didn't know if it was really them tweeting because you can't see them.

MARTIN: That's a good point. Newt Gingrich actually showed a picture of himself because he wanted to show that it was indeed him.

RAYNOR: Right.

MARTIN: But as we know people pictures, well, (unintelligible).

CARY: Well, there was an interview...

MARTIN: We all know what happens what can happen with pictures.

CARY: There was an interview with him afterwards. There's a live webcast interview as soon as it was over and I caught the end of it and the moderator who's the one that moderated for this said, hey, Newt, if people want to follow you what's your Twitter address and he goes I don't know what my Twitter address is...

RAYNOR: Yeah.

CARY: And I was like well, that makes me question everything I just read if the guy doesn't even know his Twitter address.

MARTIN: I know, how about that, right, if you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the first ever Twitter debate for presidential candidates. It took place yesterday. It was among the Republican candidates; not the whole field but a good, you know, part of it. Joining us are Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. Also with us, Jordan Raynor of Engage DC.

That's a firm that advises Republican candidates in social media strategy. So, Jordan what was your highlights and lowlights?

RAYNOR: Yeah, it was interesting to watch. The number one thing that stuck out to me was how incredibly slow the opening remarks were. I, you know, I kept track of it and between opening statements and closing statements which were obviously pre-prepared tweets from these candidates it took a 50 of the 90 minutes of this quote unquote debate.

MARTIN: Um-hum.

RAYNOR: It was really disappointing. You know, and I've managed stuff like this before where you're doing these sort of Twitter interviews and it is always slower than you would expect it to be, but I would have hoped that the parties putting together this debate would have done a little bit more research and taken that into account because, I mean, more than half of the debate was, you know, pre-prepared remarks, which was, you know, a little bit unfortunate.

You know, and then on top of that we only got to six direct questions of the...

MARTIN: Um-hum.

RAYNOR: ...of the people so that they broke the format into two sets of questions. One, were general questions open to all the candidates and there was this great free-for-all of all these candidates trying to jump in and get their voice heard on these issues, which that was fun to watch. So that was a highlight for me. But and then there were these specific questions from individuals on Twitter who were able to ask questions and then they directed them at specific candidates.

We only got to six of those questions in an hour and a half, so...

MARTIN: Right, yeah.

RAYNOR: ...it was a little disappointing. I will say though, you know, one of my concerns going into the debate.

MARTIN: Not being able to ask enough questions because your guests have too much to say well, gee. When does that ever happen?

RAYNOR: Right.

MARTIN: But I digress. But go ahead and Jordan you were saying, go ahead.

RAYNOR: Exactly, but, you know, it was I was worried on the front end before the debate that the only questions that were going to get asked were by really influential Twitter accounts. People that had more than a 1,000, you know...

MARTIN: Oh.

RAYNOR: ...you know, 2,000 followers. That wasn't the case.

MARTIN: Um-hum.

RAYNOR: Out of the six people whose questions were asked they had an average of 546 Twitter followers which was a pretty good number. Like, I was impressed with that. So that was neat.

MARTIN: So, you're saying that I don't like this term but I can't think of another one at the moment.

RAYNOR: Sure.

MARTIN: Real people actually did get to ask questions? It wasn't kind of a directed experience?

RAYNOR: Yeah.

CARY: Yeah, I think that for...

MARTIN: It really was a more of a free-for...

CARY: Which is ironic because you weren't sure...

MARTIN: Yes.

CARY: ...it was really the candidates like, you know...

RAYNOR: Right.

CARY: ...Michele Bachmann's name was Team Bachmann...

RAYNOR: Right.

MARY KATE CARY: Which made you think every time a question came up she would, like, yell out to a bullpen of 20-year-olds, hey, how do I say this 140 characters, you know?

MARTIN: But that's really the way people govern, though. I mean, is it really that important that they be doing this themselves? Because, really, they, you know, you have a team.

CARY: Well, that's true.

MARTIN: That's how you govern, right?

CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, you don't do the White House by yourself.

RAYNOR: Sure. But I do think, you know, when you compare - the word debate is, you know, in terms of Twitter will instantly be compared to television. And on television there aren't staff there. It's just the candidate onstage and there's the potential, you know, they have to come up with the answer themselves on the spot.

You know, I would've loved to have seen a candidate - I'm not sure why one of these candidates didn't do this - have a live feed of video of them sitting in front of the computer answering these questions on their website. Like, that would've been really interesting to see.

MARTIN: Good point. Anyway, so, finally, before we let you go, inevitably after a debate people ask, you know, who won or who lost or - which isn't - I don't know how useful a question that is, but there is always the question of who impressed, who made an impression, who really took advantage of the experience. Does either of you think that any of these candidates did particularly well at taking advantage of the experience of making a strong impression?

CARY: I would say...

MARTIN: I think - go ahead.

CARY: Newt Gingrich probably had the best substantive in a concise answer. But the one who did the best on this was President Obama in his Twitter town hall because he didn't tweet back 140-character answers, he had answers with thousands of words in them. And that seems to be a much better way. Tweeting the questions, but let the answers be regular.

And at the end of his he had 30,000 new followers on Twitter at the end of the Twitter town hall. This one, the biggest winner, was Michele Bachmann got 619 new followers. This wasn't winning people over.

MARTIN: Jordan, what do you think?

RAYNOR: Well said, Mary Kate. I would agree with that. You know, I'm looking strictly at the data. You know, Herman Cain had the most retweets. So the most people that were just repurposing his content to their own personal following. And Michele Bachmann was the most mentioned, which I don't think was surprising. Michele Bachmann has a very engaged base of Twitter followers and she generates a lot of buzz.

So it wasn't a surprise to me that those two kind of generated the most buzz on the social web. So, you know, looking at strictly data, I would say those would be your two winners of the debate.

CARY: Although they came in with the most followers to start with.

RAYNOR: Sure. Absolutely.

CARY: So they didn't lose anybody.

MARTIN: They didn't lose anybody. So did you guys tweet this?

CARY: Not yet. I will be later this afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARY: The one I liked was: History called in - it will not be including this in its files.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Mary Kate Cary is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's also a former presidential speech writer. She was kind enough to join us once again in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Jordan Raynor is the vice president of communications at Engage D.C. That's a firm that consults with Republican candidates on online strategy and social media strategy. He comes to us from member station WUSF in Tampa, Florida. Thank you both so much for joining us.

CARY: Thanks for having us.

RAYNOR: Thanks for having us, Michel.

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