In 2012, when approximately 40 percent of Americans owned smartphones, the Obama campaign saw focus groups that showed voters with a mobile device thought Barack Obama performed worse in the first debate than voters who watched it unfiltered on TV.
“The issue was the two-screen experience,” recalled longtime Obama aide Dan Pfeiffer. “People who were consuming the debate with no other analysis thought Obama did, not great, but it wasn’t a disaster. But if you were watching it and reading Twitter, you perceived it differently.”
He recalled a Twitter “meltdown” by journalist Andrew Sullivan panning Obama’s performance as being a consequential moment in the media narrative around the debate.
Eight years later, over 80 percent of Americans own smartphones according to Pew Research Center, and Pfeiffer said that dynamic has become only more pronounced.
“No one lives off the grid anymore and people’s impressions will change over time,” he said. “The ability of people with large online audiences to affect people’s perception of the debate matters a lot.”
Many operatives see the current shift as similar to what occurred after the first televised presidential debate. In their famous first 1960 debate, John F. Kennedy was a picture of youth and vibrancy, well-rested and with his makeup applied. Richard Nixon looked tired and sweaty on the screen.
So began debating for television rather than radio, which meant a focus on staging, optics and body language in political debates. Obama bristled at what he felt was phony, made-for-TV political theater. But after he lost that first 2012 debate, Obama’s longtime adviser David Axelrod told him he needed to get over it.
“You’re treating this like it’s all on the level. It’s not a trial or even a real debate. This is a performance,” Axelrod recalled telling the president at the time. “Romney understood that. He was delivering lines. You were answering questions.”
In some cases, the smartphone has merely augmented the dynamics that television created. Republican and Democratic digital strategists say that mobile devices have enhanced the importance of so-called “moments” — dramatic exchanges that can go viral online. While campaign operatives say the first 30 minutes of the debate is the most important, social media narratives can be shaped with a telling moment at any time during the debate.
“There’s what happened during the debate, but then there is the whole next day, the whole week out,” Flaherty said. “All of that stuff that is still a jump ball. And with smart strategies of getting a sense of where the internet is and where our message is, and finding the highest nexus of the two, you can start to control the narrative.”