Vincent Harris, Rand Paul’s chief digital strategist, has a message for political reporters tweeting and writing about the first debate of the 2016 Republican campaign this week: “We’re targeting you — directly.”
With so many reporters expected to keep one eye on stage and another glued to TweetDeck, political campaigns are getting more creative about shaping the debate coverage as it unfolds in real time. And that means buying sponsored tweets and ads to flood the time lines of reporters with fawning and favorable messaging while the candidates are still speaking and stories are still being written.
“Twitter is the real-time spin room for 2016 candidates,” said Michael Duncan, Republican digital strategist who worked on Mitch McConnell’s 2014 Senate reelection campaign but is unaligned in 2016. “For reaching reporters, posting on a hashtag is the new press release.”
The coming barrage of Twitter ads — in which campaigns upload the handles of the exact reporters they want to target — is only one piece in the pitched battle for supremacy on the debate’s so-called second screen. As the 10 Republicans spar under the bright lights in Cleveland, the debate represents the biggest test yet for the campaigns’ digital operations.
Duncan said debates are the rare event where the typically insular world of journalists and political activists on Twitter can impact a broader audience. “Political Twitter is prone to tribalism, but debates break through that barrier,” he said. “How a debate is perceived on Twitter reverberates in news coverage.”
One of the most urgent political tasks, then, is getting a campaign’s message in front of and digested by the pundits, reporters, and influencers who will set the post-debate narrative. “I think that the second-screen portion of the debate is probably where the analysis, and where the sort of conventional thought on who won and lost the debate, will be made,” said Harris.
Reporters have long griped about the flood of rapid-response email messages during debates, ever since they effectively replaced the traditional post-debate spin room more than a decade ago.
“Unsubscribe,” tweeted BuzzFeed‘s Rosie Gray during the GOP forum in New Hampshire earlier this week, along with a screenshot of her unread and unwanted fact-checks and “ALERT” emails from the likes of Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and the Democratic Party. “Thank God for Google Inbox,” chimed in The New York Times‘s Nicholas Confessore.
Now, some campaigns will force the media to at least scroll past their 140-character missives on Twitter.
“Social media is the tip of the communications spear,” said Zac Moffatt, who was Mitt Romney’s digital director in 2012.
Few expect the mid-debate press release to disappear entirely. It still has a constituency among the fact-checker community and those sifting back for fibs and flubs after the fact. Actual spin rooms still exist, too. Moffatt, however, who is not personally working with any 2016 candidate but whose firm is, said press releases unilaterally declaring victory should be a small and shrinking part of any good digital strategy. “To treat it like it’s still the mid-2000s is crazy,” he said.
The speed of debate advertising can be blindingly swift. In 2012, it took only 90 seconds after Romney infamously uttered “binders full of women” before a Democratic super PAC bought up bindersfullofwomen.com. The Obama campaign was running Twitter ads to those searching for the phrase or hashtag almost instantly.
“We’re probably talking about one to two minutes max,” said Jenna Golden, who runs political ad sales for Twitter.
The Obama campaign was slower during the disastrous first debate in Denver, when veterans of the campaign say it wasn’t just the candidate who was caught flat-footed but a digital and communications team that wasn’t prepared for the warp speed in which the debate narrative hardened as Obama flailed. BuzzFeed‘s Ben Smith memorably called the debate a win for Romney about halfway through.
“They hadn’t played real time before and we had,” Moffatt said, calling it “one of the few times we had a distinct advantage as the challenger.” Moffatt said the Romney campaign had prepared roughly 189 pages of graphics and text to push out during that debate on social channels and through paid ads.
Every major 2016 campaign is doing the same ahead of Thursday. An adviser to Scott Walker, for instance, said that, in addition to wooing new supporters tuning in for the first time, the campaign is planning for some “behind the scenes” access on platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook (which is a debate cohost).
Digital 2016 operatives have spent weeks lining up tweets, surrogates, ad buys, and infographics to complement the most lacerating lines delivered on stage. Buying up relevant Google search terms is another popular maneuver.
But digital strategists of all stripes agree that on debate nights, Twitter is king.
Twitter is offering campaigns even more tools than before to influence the debate as it unfolds. One of the site’s notable new features allows campaigns to advertise to everyone who, based on their Twitter activity, is actively engaged online while watching the debate on TV.
Of course, nothing can substitute for what happens on stage. There is no successful digital strategy to spin another Rick Perry “oops” moment.
“The candidates are still the one up there doing their thing and saying what they need to say,” as Moffatt put it. “But the campaigns are the ones amplifying that.”