Following Early Stumbles, Nation’s First Presidential Twitter Debate Ends in a Dead Heat
Last night’s presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was nothing if not historic. Though Geraldine Ferraro opened for Walter Mondale back in 1984, it was of course the first time we’ve seen a female headliner at the American democracy festival. But the real milestone was that – in an acknowledgement of the triumph of social media over both traditional media and reasoned argument – the entire debate took place on Twitter.
Organisers spoke before the debate of their excitement at the possibilities created by the new format. “We all know public disengagement is a big problem in American politics, and the shorter, more free-flowing mode is our company’s gift to American democracy,” said Derek Kleinerman, the twenty-four-year-old social media wunderkind tapped by Twitter to design the debate rules. The ‘Obama of the Twitterverse’ added that “in conventional debates candidates can use up to 180 words in a single two-minute answer; the 140-character limit means the strain placed on the viewer’s attention span is reduced by at least 80%. It’s a huge leap forward.”
Pre-debate conventional wisdom had the two campaigns evenly matched. Trump is a natural short-form provocateur, a Tworator of the likes this country has not seen since Lincoln. However, the Clinton establishment has built a formidable social media war room, composed of amusing yet self-aware millennial humourists. The Clintonistas’ sassy interventions have kept the Democratic candidate toe to toe with Trump on Twitter, while preserving her image as “America’s supremely competent but totally unthreatening grandma”.
The atmosphere in the room was electric, in a quite literal sense. Journalists and the carefully selected studio audience watched the debate on their individual devices in complete silence. At the end of the 90-minute battle, opinion was divided over the winner. Though organisers had offered the candidates an iron-clad guarantee that they would be engaging one-on-one via a protected debate feed, Twitter’s debate arena proved all too easy to hack, with frequent interjections side-tracking much of the discussion.
Trump’s opening tweet was interrupted by one such interloper:
Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine also struggled early on in adjusting to his role in proceedings:
As many in the chattering classes anticipated, former President and current vegan Bill Clinton remained firmly out of the spotlight, leaving his wife to put her case before the nation:
Mike Pence appeared more resigned to playing second fiddle:
An alleged technical malfunction sparked a childish exchange between the candidates:
Donald Trump seemed preoccupied throughout the debate over his hand size, at the expense of a number of policy issues:
A legal snafu left Clinton high and dry for a while:
An unexpected development at the fifteen-minute mark left the Clinton campaign in temporary chaos. Having fired its third legal team on Monday, the Trump Campaign’s appeal was delayed, and finally delivered to the Debates Committee at 7:07pm Eastern Time. Just minutes later, the appeal secured a dramatic mid-debate reversal of the prior ruling, which had held that individuals not listed on the ballot in primary states were allowed to participate in the debate. The Clinton social media team were immediately stripped of their smartphones by debate officials and confined to a wifi deadzone for the duration. Their cries of terror were heard throughout the building, eventually fading to soft whimpers and sobs. Several of the team plan to file claims in civil court in the coming days, seeking damages for the trauma inflicted by over an hour of digital deprivation. One even spoke of lodging a civil rights claim, saying “we’re taking this all the way to President Clinton’s Supreme Court”.
The ruling also left Clinton floundering. The decision was followed by a ten-minute silence from her personal Twitter account. However, tweets resumed at 7:30pm, and the Democrat’s strategy for the latter half of the debate soon became clear. It was described by one long-term aide as “an approach to public discourse perfected in her days serving the American people in the US Senate – namely, boring-them-into-submission”. Over the remaining sixty minutes, Clinton tweeted sections 2(a) and 3(d) of her economic policy out 140 characters at a time. Her sole deviations were a valiant attempt to co-opt the youthful meme “delete your account” – advising Trump to “deactivate your account” – and a Tweet asking whether anyone knew what time The Good Wife was on TV.
While the outgoing President’s single Tweet made his feelings clear – a chorus with a message so obvious that not even The House Oversight Committee could miss it:
Potential future First Lady Melania Trump found inspiration in current First Lady Michelle Obama’s words:
Two venerable institutions of American life made their feelings known:
A tech great also weighed in:
The Libertarian Party candidate Gary “What is Aleppo?” Johnson tried yet again to put his poor grasp of Syrian geography behind him by co-opting Donald Trump’s populist anti-elite message, before taking a more existential turn:
Former Presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s passion for The Princess Bride movie proved something of a nuisance:
Meanwhile, party power brokers debated whose life looks grimmest right now:
Lucy Wark is an Australian freelance writer and co-founder of the Cambridge Globalist. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, Medium, and other publications. She finds social media vaguely annoying but necessary, like flu shots and showering. You can find here on Twitter at @lucywark, and you can find more of her work here and here.