The post-debate spin room – the hectic crowd of election workers and political reporters who designed the reporting and informed public opinion – was set up by the coronavirus.
But its demise is years in development, fueled by the rise of smartphones and social media, which radically revamped the strategies of debate like television 60 years ago.
During the first presidential debate on Tuesday evening, there will be three mini-teams in the Biden campaign on the “Spin Room” service. Video and discussion points are published through the campaign’s channels on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other platforms.
Another team will be deploying a new tool to deliver real-time lively content to campaign supporters with prominent social media followers, with the aim of shaping the political conversation online as the debate unfolds. (The campaign declined to name the provider of the new tool, but said major league baseball teams are using it to share content with the league.)
The third team, codenamed the “Rebel Alliance,” consists of about a dozen aides who will focus on a network of progressive Facebook pages like Occupy Democrats and other liberal influencers to help shape the wider social media conversation about the debate.
“We’re going to see more and more people watching this through clips – later on YouTube, going back and trying to find things really fast,” said Rob Flaherty, Biden’s digital director. “There is a quick reaction from reporters on Twitter. But real people trying to figure out what’s going on in the debate go to Google.
Flaherty said the campaign also plans to purchase Google ads after the debate – based on possible search terms popping up over the course of the 90-minute event – along with other digital purchases.
The steps show how campaigns are increasingly focusing on having conversations about the social media debate outside of the mainstream press – both in real time and in the days that follow.
Donald Trump’s campaign claimed his “digital and social media game outwitted and consistently outperformed Joe Biden’s JV team” but declined to provide details of his game plan for the debate. An adviser said the campaign was trying to avoid giving the Democrats any insight into the way they work.
The intense online focus for the debate is evident in other parts of the race as well. The two campaigns are well on their way to spending hundreds of millions on Facebook, Google Search, YouTube, and Hulu. However, the ubiquity of smartphones and the screen-rich world of social distancing have dramatically increased the importance of the campaign’s mobile strategy.
In 2012, when around 40 percent of Americans owned smartphones, the Obama campaign had focus groups that showed voters with a mobile device that Barack Obama did worse in the first debate than voters who saw it unfiltered on TV.
“The problem was the experience with two screens,” recalls long-time Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer. “People who consumed the debate with no other analysis didn’t think Obama was great, but it wasn’t a disaster. But when you’ve seen it and read Twitter, you’ve perceived it differently.”
He recalled a Twitter breakdown by journalist Andrew Sullivan, who saw Obama’s performance as a follow-up moment in the media narrative surrounding the debate.
Eight years later, according to their own statements, over 80 percent of Americans own smartphones to the Pew Research Centerand Pfeiffer said the dynamic has only become more pronounced.
“Nobody lives off the grid anymore and people’s impressions will change over time,” he said. “The ability of people with large online audiences to influence people’s perception of the debate is very important.”
Many activists see the current shift as similar to what happened after the President’s first televised debate. In their famous first debate in 1960, John F. Kennedy was an image of youth and vitality, rested and with his makeup on. Richard Nixon looked tired and sweaty on the screen.
So the debate began for television rather than radio, which meant an emphasis on staging, optics and body language in political debates. Obama resisted what he considered to be fake political theater made for television. But after losing that first debate in 2012, Obama’s longtime advisor David Axelrod told him he had to get over it.
“You treat it as if everything is on the level. It’s not a process or even a real debate. This is a performance,” said Axelrod, recalling the then president. “Romney understood that. He provided lines. You have Questions answered. “
In some cases, the smartphone has merely increased the dynamics of television. Republican and Democratic digital strategists say mobile devices have increased the importance of so-called “moments” – dramatic exchanges that can go viral online. While campaign staff say the first 30 minutes of the debate are most important, social media narratives can be crafted with a meaningful moment at any point during the debate.
“There’s what happened during the debate, but then there’s all of the next day, all of the week,” Flaherty said. “All that stuff that is still a jump ball. And with smart strategies to get a feel for where the internet is, where our message is, and to find the highest connection between the two, you can begin to control the narrative. “