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The First-Ever Presidential Twitter Debate: How'd That Go?

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, July 20 2011

Earlier this afternoon, six hopefuls for the Republican presidential nomination wrapped up an hour-and-a-half-long Twitter marathon moderated by conservative commentator S.E. Cupp.

The candidates made no real news, but generated a lot of buzz: At the end of the event, Cupp announced it had generated 180 tweets per minute, over 3,800 mentions, and over 4,500 retweets.

Maybe this wasn't a shining example of social media's ability to deliver substance with style, but it did bring candidates for president of the United States — Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain — into the same space, mentally if not physically, at the same time.

The event did offer an opportunity for Twitter users compare a few of the candidates to one another on some issues, like Libya: Cain and Bachmann say they would not have intervened, while Gingrich says he would not have sent "conventional forces," if it had been his call.

The debate's staccato nature — with candidates rushing to get their answers onto the Internet 140 characters at a time, all in the span of five minutes per question — seemed to limit each participant to the kinds of responses they've either given before or would be expected to give: Michele Bachmann burnished her Tea Party cred by dropping mention of her status as chair of the House Tea Party Caucus; Newt Gingrich, still chased by the spectre of his May comments about House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's budget plan, went out of his way to support a Ryan-esque Medicare strategy; Cain emphasized limited government and creating a pro-business climate.

And the debate did not include any direct interaction between candidates, or much connection between the event and the world beyond Twitter. There were no pleas from one candidate for the opportunity to respond to something uttered by another, no rebuttals, and no "there you go again" moments on a medium known for its praise of the pithy. The only time candidates were allowed to link to videos or any other outside material was during opening and closing statements, and most candidates linked to videos they had already put out on the web. They were limited to five minutes to answer each question, but had an unlimited number of tweets in which to do so. The broad GOP presidential field at the debate did not include Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and a frontronner for the Republican nomination, or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty; absent those two, perhaps the event was always destined to have a low coefficient of friction.

Whatever the reason, the result was a dissociated jumble of 140-character declarative statements, something one observer called "the most ADD experience I've ever had."

The team that produced the event, led by the Tea Party website, promised more events to come. It's likely they'll change the format — after all, this event was the first of its kind, and the organizers were open from the beginning about the experimental nature of the event.

"A lot of it is, we're figuring it out as we go," one of the organizers, TheTeaParty.Net media director Dustin Stockton, explained to me in advance of the event. "There's no model to put this together."

Given that the event generated thousands of retweets and new followers for the participants, there's clearly an incentive to hold another — at least for the candidates.