TV Debates are Dead: Twitter is the Debate Stage in 2020


I'm a strategist, and for a long time, I've been marinating in the idea that Trump and his cronies are playing baseball with the Democrats and Republicans who didn't sell out for cash or reelection. But it's a different game. They are using a different bat and ball, and they keep scoring run after run against the home team - not because they have better players, but because they have better equipment.

In my opinion, traditional debates, press conferences, and hearings - the equipment used by the dems - are headed toward the graveyard, as well they should be. Long long ago print turned to radio, which then turned to TV for presidential candidates in the 1900s. The players moved to them because they were better at conveying the larger picture of who the candidates were and what they represented. We could see them. We could hear them. It took print from one-dimensional messaging to the equivalent of 3D. Well, this is the 21st century, and the newest, shiniest tools are not televised debates, press conferences, or hearings; they are social media posts.

Trump gets it. He is posting each and every day in real time on Twitter, where he gets to answer (albeit dishonestly) any debate question he chooses to respond to. He controls what he replies to because no one is there to field the play. He has more than 75,000,000 followers and he can speak directly to them without worry of reprisal. Those who oppose him using other methods are moving in slow motion through the House's hallowed halls of mahogany desks and huge leather chairs that probably cost thousands of dollars apiece. They are waiting like dogs on the lawn, crying out for him to dare give them answers. He simply walks up to the front and chooses the person he wants to let ask a question. Those in the press pool know that if they pose a real question, one that's difficult but necessary, he won't call on them again, so they refrain from asking or following up. They just stand there in silence, hoping he will toss them a bone. And then there are the Democratic presidential debates in which 90-second responses - tested sound bites on topics that everyone has already heard more than their desired fill of - are delivered by individuals behind lecterns that make certain they do not connect with anyone watching in person or on TV.

Trump's had the platform used by America to disseminate information and debate policy all to himself because the other candidates, and politicians overall, are using Twitter for vetting their own messaging that is too complicated and way too yesterday for the medium. So no wonder Trump's numbers haven't suffered and no one is excited by any of his challengers. But in walks Bloomberg and he gets it. He is confronting Trump in his own territory and it's working. Others suggest that it's the ads that have propelled Bloomberg to a decent presence on the stage, but I say it's his Twitter and social media accounts. It has been written that Bloomberg has hired psychologists and comic writers to see what will make Trump nuts - and call for him to respond to that which he should leave alone, and it's working. Trump is giving him leverage and Bloomberg is 'debating' on the stage that propelled Trump to victory three years ago. It's a mystery to me why the other candidates haven't done it, or now that they see Bloomberg do it, haven't followed suit.

Let me make a prediction here: Trump is never going to debate his opponent on the stage. He will claim that the media is not going to be fair, and therefore, he's just not going to do it. He might agree to a debate and then change his mind, but I believe he will be a no-show for sure.

The questions and answers that are taking place on the debate stage are putting us all to sleep. If we MUST hold a debate, let's base all the questions on that day's news. Let's do this in real time, people. The news of the day represents the world in which we now live, and the bigger issues have to be dispensed in smaller doses. If you can't deliver a sound bite to any debate question, you haven't the ability to connect with your viewers.

Twitter is the new press conference vehicle. It is the new debate platform. It's the new venue for hearings.

"How does that work?" you ask. OK, maybe you didn't ask, but I'll tell you anyway because I hope you're curious.

Press conferences would move to collective questions asked by members of the press to people in the news. This would occur numerous times a day, effective immediately. Journalists should be posting these questions on Twitter so that Trump cannot ignore them, not only because he is incapable of not reacting, but also because Americans would demand answers. Here is an example:

@RealDonaldTrump What's the difference between @DonaldTrumpJr getting paid $50,000 to speak about your presidency and #HunterBiden receiving a position on a board solely because his father was the VP?

(In my opinion, by the way, both of these things are inappropriate.)

If the press pool puts out the tweet and millions retweet the question to him, Trump will answer it. He'll have to. This would solve a number of issues, not the least of which is the fact that the press is living in fear of asking difficult questions because they don't want to be ignored or removed from the pool. This president controls the questions he has to answer, and that power can only be taken from him if we change the template for asking. If the press coordinates and asks the questions together on Twitter, Trump won't be able to turn away from them. Finally, the press will be in charge of the questions asked. The other thing this will do is loosen the grip of Fox News on the 40% of Americans who only get their news from that source. Americans will see the answers to questions that haven't been delivered by pundits. In my mind, the asking of questions only by pundits has greatly contributed to the demise of our democracy. Mika and Joe from "Morning Joe" made Donald Trump, and while they may turn on him now and again, neither of them were ever - or are now - qualified to define the news for others.

Let's move on to the Senate and House hearings. No one in America had the attention span to follow last month's hearings, possibly because they were little more than infomercials on topics that have already been discussed over and over again. (And that is to say nothing of the dark chambers that remind me of something out of "Wuthering Heights." What is with those ridiculous leather chairs?!) If the Dems had wanted to make last week month for them, they should have posted the worthy sound bites on Twitter in real time, and let the proceedings take place on the platforms where "we the people" are conversing. We Americans no longer want to receive long-winded answers to leading questions broadcast on television, where the speakers sit behind wooden barriers and prepare everything they want to say. We want to participate in the conversation.

Every fifteen minutes, another quote would deliver a real-time update. Debate is happening this way; it's called social media engagement. There was a reason Aaron Sorkin invented the "walk and talk" methodology of delivering long-winded conversations.

Do you know where the name Twitter originated? Birds have two ways of communicating. They sing to one another (which, of course, I love), but they also produce what scientists call tweets. A tweet is a burst of sound that is short and urgent, and which appears to send a signal to other birds. It's brief and compelling. So were many of the sound bites from the hearings. Imagine a gold nugget being delivered directly to millions of people around the world on their Twitter feeds every fifteen minutes. I rest my case.

Here is the thing: Trump has been the only one using Twitter for press conferences, debate questions, and views on the hearings. Until Bloomberg showed up, he owned it all. Join the new world candidates and give Trump a run for his money. Show up where America is, and be heard! This message goes out to every candidate, all members of the press, all senators, and all members of the House. This is where you will make or break it. The days of hiding behind tested messaging and sound bites rewritten for weeks are over.

As for the debates tonight? Because Bloomberg will be on stage, there will be viewership, but whomever takes it to Twitter in real time will make the biggest splash in the sea. Debates are dead.

Christine Merser, Managing Partner, Blue Shoe Strategy

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