The Republican Twitter debate had been touted in advance as something revolutionary. Revolutionary is too strong a word for what actually happened--or for any format that allows the candidates to spout their talking points unchallenged. But if not exactly groundbreaking, history's first-ever Twitter presidential debate proved to be a fascinating experiment. Among other things, it stands as a warning of what might happen if the 140-character tweet ever supplants the 10-second sound bite.
Six candidates took part: Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Gary Johnson, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich), and Rick Santorum. The candidates tweeted opening statements, the moderator asked a series of general questions, members of the public offered their own questions, then the debate wrapped up with closing statements. On the website that carried the debate live, a sidebar of public tweets unfolded next to the candidates' discussion -- this stream of comments, as it turned out, was a good deal more entertaining than the debate itself.
This format presented several problems:
• The opening statements took up far too much of the debate. By the time the first question was asked, half an hour had passed.
• Rather than engaging the questions at hand, the candidates seemed to be cutting and pasting from their campaign websites. No one would ever describe Twitter as an ideal platform for nuanced political discourse; even so, too much of this debate sounded like bumper stickers. Furthermore, the format offers virtually no opportunity for interplay among the participants, so the discussion played out along separate, parallel tracks.
• The audience has no way of knowing who is actually speaking under a candidate's name. According to advance reports, Rick Santorum planned to do his own tweeting while Gary Johnson said he would dictate to an aide. The Gingrich campaign released a photo of the candidate at his computer tweeting during the debate. Other candidates were less forthcoming about their behind-the-curtain arrangements. It bears mention that Michele Bachmann was the only candidate not to tweet under her own name. Instead, all of her comments came from "TeamBachmann," strongly suggesting that she did not write her own material.
• The general questions posed by moderator S.E. Cupp were interesting and well crafted, but the quality of the discussion degenerated when the focus shifted to tweets from the public. There were lags between questions and answers, and the disjointedness of the content meant that no topic got more than a quick going-over. If Twitter debates are to survive, their producers will need to figure out a more effective way of pacing the content and giving ideas a chance to develop.
Do Twitter debates offer any advantages? The participants certainly don't have to worry about any cosmetic issues. In that sense, the format presents a level playing field to the candidates in a way TV debates do not.
As a novelty, the Twitter debate was an experiment worth conducting, and with some tweaking the format deserves another shot. But this new kid on the block has a long way to go before knocking off the juggernaut of televised debates.