There’s no question that in a crowded primary field, a nationally televised presidential debate is a key moment. “Every time you get a chance to be in front of 20, 25 million people in this race, it’s important,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Sunday on Meet the Press.
But as social media have made big events like debates increasingly an interactive experience, with many viewers watching with their computers, smartphones and tablets open to Facebook or Twitter, campaigns have stepped up their digital debate strategy, too.
That’s why voters can expect to be plastered with promoted posts and ads before, during and after Wednesday’s second GOP debate. It’s part of what campaigns see as a necessary plank in the effort to compete for and hold onto voters’ attention in the fastest news cycle and the largest field of candidates in presidential history.
Campaigns are trying to accomplish three key goals: raise some money, generate some buzz for their candidate, and convince supporters to pass along key information, like their names, email addresses and ZIP codes.
At this point in the race, buzz is important. For many years, the post-debate “spin room” was the place where campaigns could try to influence debate coverage. Now, there’s no delay — campaigns take their candidates’ key quotes and, just moments after they happen, push them out online in an attempt to generate momentum and that needed attention.
As just one example of how the action online now matches the action onstage, here’s how Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s campaign used Twitter last month to try to make the most of the initial GOP debate.
Beforehand, his staff encouraged supporters to tweet pictures of themselves watching the debate:
Paul’s account then retweeted several of those pictures over the course of the debate. (The “send me your selfies” approach is a routine engagement strategy for the Paul campaign — a strategy that, as NPR’s Sam Sanders recently pointed out, hasn’t always gone so well.)
When Paul clashed with Christie over national security and domestic surveillance, the Paul campaign decided it had its “special moment” to focus on.
“I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from innocent Americans,” Paul said.
“That’s a completely ridiculous answer,” Christie countered. “How are you supposed to know?”
“Get a warrant!” Paul repeatedly replied, yelling over Christie.
While the debate was still airing, the Paul campaign had pulled a video of the exchange and posted it on Twitter:
It eventually boiled that down to a pull quote — and a Vine:
“The problem, with 11 candidates, is figuring out how to package special moments,” explained Paul’s chief digital strategist, Vincent Harris. “Online consumers only have so much time. It’s up to us on the campaign to package those moments in short and engaging ways.”
The campaign’s engagement attempts continued for several days after the debate, even encouraging supporters to submit drawings of the back-and-forth.
As a way to draw out supporters’ personal information, the campaign asked people to “vote now” on who they “stood with” when it comes to the Bill of Rights.
The subsequent link asked people to submit their full names, email addresses, and ZIP codes — key information for later fundraising and organizing pushes.
The Paul campaign, the Christie campaign and the 13 other Republican operations with a candidate on stage Wednesday night will be at it again this week, posting tweet after snap after vine in an attempt to create their own viral moments.
And they’ll be able to deliver these posts to very specific audiences. Campaigns can now target their ads to viewers and readers by gender, location, age and interest. Different groups may see different highlights. Earlier this year, Twitter rolled out a new advertising feature it claims can identify who is watching and reacting to specific major events or TV programs.
The Paul campaign has even paid to make sure its tweets appear on the timelines of specific reporters.
In a sense, the traditional post-debate spin room has now expanded to every social media user in the country. And, based on the information voters share online, each person is now receiving an increasingly specific, tailored piece of spin.