Tweets become new spin room in 2012 race

NEW YORK (AP) ? Rick Perry had barely gotten through his gaffe in Wednesday’s Republican primary debate when a rolling commentary on the TV screen declared his campaign on life support.

“Perry is done,” came a Twitter posting from a viewer called (at)PatMcPsu, even while the Texas governor struggled to name the third of three federal agencies he said he would eliminate as president. Another, called (at)sfiorini, messaged, “Whoa? Seriously, Rick Perry? He can’t even name the agencies he wants to abolish. Wow. Just wow.”

Perry insists his campaign isn’t over and has vowed to move on from his meltdown.

One used to have to wait for several minutes after the debate ended for analysis of the 2012 presidential contest. But if Wednesday’s exchange is any indication, social networking has become the instant punditry. The 140-character messages known as tweets came from ordinary viewers and prominent campaign strategists alike.

Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook have long been hotbeds of political conversation, largely for an insider crowd of activists and news junkies. But CNBC, which aired the debate, took things a step further, featuring an onscreen crawl of tweets from viewers reacting to what was transpiring onstage. That allowed ordinary viewers to chime in on the political conversation and an even larger audience.

Social media provides “a real time citizen voice,” according to Matthew Nisbet, an associate professor of communications at American University who studies politics and digital media.

“It’s no longer a passive audience experience, watching commentators and political strategists discussing what is being seen on the screen,” Nisbet said. “Now people can hear it from a more diverse range of voices, and potentially from their peers.”

CNBC spokesman Brian Steel said the network, which specializes in business and financial news and runs a continuous stock ticker, viewed social media as a natural partner for the debate.

“During business hours CNBC is focused on providing real-time data analysis and information, so social media was a great way to work in real-time reaction to the debate. It’s very consistent with what we do,” Steel said.

The network had chosen a mix of citizen tweets to feature onscreen along with those from “influencers” like former General Electric Chairman Jack Welch and Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor and well-known political commentator, Steel said.

CNBC even posted a tweet from (at)BarackObama, the president’s re-election Twitter feed, where campaign staff tweeted their reactions to the debate.

“‘Obamacare’ and ‘repeal’ are tied for the most mentions at the second commercial break,” the post said.

To be sure, there were far more tweets and mentions of the debate on other social media than those that actually appeared on TV.

Bluefin Labs, a Cambridge, Mass., social analytic company that tracks digital chatter around television, found there were almost 275,000 social media mentions of the CNBC debate as it was underway. That was second only to the October 18 CNN debate, which drew more than 548,000 mentions.

By comparison, the Fox comedy Glee, which draws more social media commentary than any other show on television this season, averages about 189,000 mentions per episode.

The Perry blunder, approximately one hour and 19 minutes into the debate, received by far the most Twitter attention. Approximately 21,000 tweets were generated at that moment, with several going straight to the CNBC display.

Those numbers, of course, represent a tiny fraction of the voting population. For that reason, Nisbet said it’s important not to overstate a tweet’s importance even when it appears on television.

“The voices that are posting to Twitter are not only the people most engaged in politics, they’re also strongly correlated with ideology,” Nisbet said. “Whether during a Republican debate or a Democratic debate, you’ll get the two tail ends of the spectrum offering their views.”

Nisbet also predicted eventually tweets that are sponsored, or paid for, by campaigns are likely to show up in a television crawl ? further diluting it as representative of citizen chatter.

Adam Sharp, who handles politics and policy for Twitter in Washington, acknowledged that the Twitter audience couldn’t be considered a cross section of the voting population. But he said Twitter’s engaged, motivated users were an important barometer for reaction to a debate.

“Everyone involved in campaigns is trying to get to the same concept: What is the voting population responding to?” Sharp said. “With Twitter, you don’t need these proxies of pundits or a focus group to give you a sample idea of how the voting population is reacting because they are doing so in a very public, searchable way.”


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