I’m not a betting man. But if I was, I’d wager a few dollars that Thursday night’s Republican debate on Fox News will be the highest-rated primary debate of all time.
It has all the right ingredients: a packed stage, four years of buildup, a cast of characters that all but guarantees some fireworks, and a Thursday night prime-time audience. And, oh yeah, made-for-TV early frontrunner Donald Trump is in pole position.
Even if Trump takes a more measured approach on Thursday – and there’s good reason to think he will – his presence has made the GOP race much more combustible. (Take a look at Mike Huckabee’s tone in 2016 versus 2008, for one example). It’ll be must-see TV, and not just for politics buffs.
But I’ll only have one eye on the screen. Throughout the debate, I’ll be refreshing my Twitter feed. Twitter is one part real-time reporting platform, one part spin room, another part echo chamber, and one-quarter GIF-flavored satire source. It’s the perfect 21st century compliment to any mass-media event, and none more so than a high-stakes debate.
Remember the first debate of the 2012 presidential election, the one that President Barack Obama sleepwalked through? It was clear on Twitter, mostly from the aghast reaction of his own supporters and friendlier media outlets, that the president was losing the debate.
Sentiment was much more mixed in the second, and then became favorable in the third debate.
This is Twitter at its best, proving context and analysis that you previously couldn’t get until the post-debate cable TV spin room, or even the next morning’s newspaper. The platform has had significant problems, both growing its user base and revenue streams. However, events like this prove, as interim CEO Jack Dorsey said, that Twitter is "the closest thing we have to a global consciousness."
Quick reaction on Twitter is nothing new, of course. Yet while the platform has been part of every major election since 2008, campaigns are investing more money in rapid-reaction capabilities than ever, and operatives who specialize in it are taking lead roles in campaigns. That means the pre-, mid-, and post-debate tweets from the various GOP camps will be more sophisticated this time around.
Another compelling reason to keep Twitter open: this debate is taking place in uncharted territory. For one, there’s the number of candidates on stage, which means in theory that each will try to get more bang for the buck out of every statement. Number two, some significant names, such as the 2012 winner of the Iowa caucuses and the longest-ever-serving governor of Texas, are on the undercard, and their teams will want to make a splash, as well.
And then there’s Trump, who has confounded the establishment both in the GOP and the media since joining the race and surging to the top of the early polls. Remember all the talk of "zingers" in the 2012 debates? His sparring with the rest of the Republican field, especially conventional wisdom frontrunner Jeb Bush, should guarantee a few tonight.
Get your popcorn ready, but keep the butter off your fingers if you’re using Twitter on your smartphone.
Frank Washkuch is news editor at PRWeek.