Round-Up: Live Tweeting Kennedy-Nixon Debate, RNC Encourages Debate Noise & More

Does using social media while viewing presidential debates affect what we learn? A TV columnist tweets the first-ever televised debate and comes away with a new perspective on Kennedy and Nixon. Plus open debates, bipartisan debates and more.

kennedy nixon 1960 debate

John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the first-ever televised presidential debate on Sept. 26, 1960

Tweets from 196o: A new study on the distracting effects of tweeting while debate-viewing inspired television columnist Ellen Gray to wonder whether Twitter, which has served as her note-taking tool during recent debates, might be improving her focus instead.


To test her theory, she decided to tweet a debate she had never seen before: the first-ever televised U.S. presidential debate, featuring Vice President Richard Nixon and U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy.

The Sept. 26, 1960, debate is remembered for the emergence of television as an influential force in presidential politics. As the story goes, Kennedy edged out Nixon if you were watching on television, due to his charisma and tan, while Nixon came out on top if you were listening to the radio and didn’t see him sweat. (You can watch the debate on YouTube or C-SPAN for yourself.)

Gray writes: 

Here’s what I did: I kept myself to the 140-character Twitter limit. I paused only to check the time, and otherwise “tweeted” in real time. I have slightly reworded some of the original tweets. 

I wasn’t actually on Twitter (because live-tweeting an event that took place nearly 56 years ago might call my sanity into more question than usual). I also wasn’t engaging with others as I watched a sometimes fuzzy black-and-white recording on YouTube. But my real-time reactions led me to question what I’d read and heard about the debate often credited with helping JFK win the presidency.

And who would have guessed Gray would note this: “Don’t care what you say: Veep’s got a nice smile. #debate”

The study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that watching presidential debates while using social media may have a negative effect on how much viewers learn about the candidates—especially candidates they favor. The study examined the influence of using a second screen during the 2012 presidential election. 

“Overall, debates are still an incredibly powerful forum in which people can learn about the candidates,” said Jeffrey A. Gottfried, lead author of the study. “But social media seem to be distracting viewers from learning.”

Still, the study found that social-media users generally “were significantly more knowledgeable than non-users about candidate stances and background facts of the 2012 presidential election.”

Multitasking during debates has taken on new significance this election cycle, as the debates are much more integrated with Twitter and Facebook. Twitter’s partnership with CBS News during a Democratic debate in Iowa, for example, included a question inspired by a viewer’s tweet.

“We’re deep enough into the 2016 presidential campaign that we should probably avoid broad pronouncements based on four-year-old data,” Adam Sharp, who heads Twitter’s government and elections team, told CNET.

It remains to be seen whether new forms of viewer engagement make a difference, but Gottfried isn’t optimistic. He does, however, plan to re-do the survey using data from the 2016 general election. 

Plus: As we previously noted, a team of researchers found that people in the U.K. who use Twitter to discuss election debates are more likely to become politically engaged. Their study appears in the Journal of Communication. 

Who Gets Tickets to the Presidential Debates? Bloomberg Politics put together a short video showing the mix of invited guests to the Democratic debate in Brooklyn. Not invited was the owner of 2,000 pigeons who was called to get his pigeons under control.

“They were concerned they were going to fly over the debate and [fly] over the reporters when they were trying to talk,” he said. 

Debates Make a Comeback: An editorial at praises a scheduled bipartisan primary debate for a U.S. House race, noting that debates for political races below governor and U.S. Senate had been in decline due in part to “a personnel implosion in the mainstream media.”

“Newspapers and broadcasting outlets that were often sponsors no longer have enough warm bodies to get involved with multiple debates. Also, League of Women Voters groups seem to have tired of the hassles of scheduling reluctant candidates,” reads the editorial. “U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd Dist., spent the last few elections sidelining marginal Democrat challengers to the point that he acted as if they didn’t exist. A high-profile debate publicizes the underdog.”

For the June 2 debate, the NAACP turned to the League of Women Voters to supply a moderator and partnered with a number of co-sponsors—a smart step to broaden a debate’s appeal and increase candidate buy-in.

Speaking of Ducking: Sen. Ted Cruz keeps challenging frontrunner Donald Trump to another debate, but no luck. Republicans have not held a debate since March 10.

Open Debate CoalitionSharing the Stage: Bipartisan debates are becoming a thing in 2016. Besides New Jersey, in Florida, U.S. Senate hopefuls Rep. Alan Grayson, a Democrat, and Rep. David Jolly, engaged in an open debate, with questions culled entirely from the public, despite the primary election being months away. The Florida Open Debate was sponsored by the Open Debate Coalition.

And in California, three Republican and two Democratic U.S. Senate candidates debated on the same stage in the race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. (John Diaz of the San Francisco Chronicle takes readers behind the scenes, and notes suggested questions were sent in via social media and email.) The same five candidates are invited to a debate on May 10 at San Diego State University, the last debate before the primary.  

Sound Effects: During a panel on media coverage of U.S. politics held at the University of Virginia, “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson, who drew boos for correcting Cruz while moderating a Republican debate, said the Republican National Committee wants a louder debate audience.

“The Republican National Committee wants people in there excited,” Dickerson said. “It’s all about party fundraising. They want the crazy ruckus to make [the debate] seem like a party, but the problem is when the audience gets out of control.”

PiliPinasDebatesPopularity and Impact of #PiliPinasDebates: The presidential debates in the Philippines, the first since 1992, have come to an end. The election will be held May 9. 

In an editorial, the daily newspaper Business Mirror said the “most important result” is that “it has changed Philippine politics.” 

“Used to speaking before a sea of friendly faces,” reads the editorial, “now candidates have to deal with their supporters being only a minority in the audience. Used to saying whatever they want, the candidates now face immediate challenges to their ideas from the moderators and panelists, apart from the other hopefuls.

“The people also gained much from this experience,” the editorial continues. “Access to the debates was available to everyone through a variety of outlets, including television, radio and Internet. There was no way for the candidates to run and hide no matter how uncomfortable they became. The public saw every drop of sweat, every scowl and every smile.”

Three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate were sponsored by the Commission on Elections (Comelac) in conjunction with different media outlets. Comelac Chairman Juan Andres “Andy” Bautista said the debates helped voters to scrutinize the candidates and gave the candidates the opportunity to present themselves. (It’s worth noting the frontrunner is known as “Asia’s Donald Trump.”) 

The Manila Bulletin reported that the final debate on April 24 featuring all five candidates generated more than 1.24 million tweets and received a national TV rating of 40.6 percent—the highest among the debates, according to Kantar Media. As with previous debates, more than 20 percent of the total debate time was taken up by TV ads.