Democratic debate: The candidates' healthy friction is a boon for communications experts

The first gloves-off showing of the 2016 election cycle for US Democrats comes Tuesday evening. We should expect frontrunner Hillary Clinton to reaffirm her bona fides while wily Bernie Sanders carries on an ascendant, populist campaign. Clinton’s performance – with a looming, will he-won’t he Biden candidacy – will keep this Democratic debate interesting for the subtext as much as what happens on stage.

Matt Spector

For the first in a series of six planned Democratic debates, CNN shared it will release its second debate of this cycle to livestream on its digital properties. Cord cutters can breathe a sigh of relief, and have no excuse not to pay attention. With a flock of well-financed candidates, the race promises to break spending records and put new platforms through the ringer – it is critical even as a passive observer to know the issues and the channels where the dollars will be put to use. Here’s what eagle-eyed communicators and social quarterbacks will need to take seriously:

The shadow contest

Arguably the most exciting story from the Democratic camp is that of vice president Biden, whose dance around jumping into the race has been the potential fire that would turn the progressive base into a true contest firmly pitting the Obama legacy against what’s next.

With the potential of Biden’s foray comes the prospect of the 5pm news drop – ie the revelations that might hit prior to the debate, and, in turn, how much the debate will set the stage for Hillary’s much-awaited Benghazi Committee hearing later in October. Those eyeing whom to support will want to read between the lines and the way the Biden talk plays out underneath and around the debate, and in particular what’s he up to during the day leading into the debate, and directly before and after the festivities.

White horse candidate Lawrence Lessig is himself seeking to make the debate stage – but his fringe single-issue candidacy might not receive the attention it deserves from CNN’s debate producers. As Lessig told Time, “there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the idea of an outsider.” That might be so – but we likely won’t see him on stage either. Keep your eyes on the @lessig feed.

The issues

In a first for this election cycle, it appears the issues will take center stage. While the Republican debates have seemingly broadened the circus that is the GOP primary, the Democrats have faced a primary season volleying more serious issues. Black Lives Matter and #BlackTwitter activists have engaged candidates in heady debate online and offline. Issues from Planned Parenthood funding and climate change to gun control and transgender rights are finally overwhelming the character studies that have eclipsed most campaign rhetoric thus far.

It will be telling how and whether the candidates engage – and how much the issues are given credence beyond moderators’ commitment forcing the candidates to snipe at one another. Or will the Clinton campaign’s email woes surface again?

Moderating the chaos

In both GOP debates of the cycle, moderators like Fox News’ Megyn Kelly and CNN’s Jake Tapper have inadvertently taken center stage. Fox coached its massive debate audience to whoop it up with the candidates, while CNN’s more modest and controlled showing at the Reagan Library was a more subdued affair. CNN’s three-hour debate, airplane and all, was largely considered too long for its substance, and was overshadowed by Carly Fiorina’s attempts to legitimize her campaign. Weeks later, the cycle doesn’t even retain the substance of the debate itself, and the Republican base’s populist foe Trump still leads in many polls.

We might expect another whizz-bang hologram or VR tool from CNN for this round, but the voices of the moderators will be key. Anderson Cooper will take center stage Tuesday, as Tapper was demoted from the moderator’s chair, and will need to balance anchorlygravitas and a focus on the issues.

Distributing the spin

The candidates’ cadence will be key. How quickly are the campaigns iterating new content on social? What do their war rooms look like? And, with them, are social and content war rooms even relevant any longer?

Observing the candidates’ feeds around the Republican debate revealed sophisticated distribution machines – the Hillary camp even recently hired the former editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed’s distributed @BFF to run social and content. We’ll want to see which candidates – red or blue, their campaigns or their Super PACs – are investing in targeted investments during the debate itself.

The debates might also allow brands and other fledgling media properties a boost through extra-innings affiliations with fringe candidates like Lessig and Mike O’Malley.

The commentariat

Observers will want to catch the Obama White House’s response; the social and content masters at the White House have faced increased pressure to identify the contrasts between Obama’s legacy and Hillary’s policy positions. We’ll need to watch for the commentary – or lack thereof – the White House and its surrogates’ feeds provide around the debate.

Those keeping count will also want to leverage their social listening tools to the tally of social mentions between Bernie’s young-skewing camp and Hillary’s. Hillary’s teams have been messaging for weeks around national debate watch parties, second only to Trump and his handlers’ new standard for unencumbered social media commentary – while O’Malley and other also-rans are calling for additional debates to be added to the roster, offering the second-tier candidates additional opportunities to throw their voices into the fray. Regardless of political party, we’ll need to keep an eye on whose witty retort wins the day.

Take note – the tactics leveraged by Democrats, who traditionally command better data and “stuff” that advances the science of campaigning, will play out through November and beyond.

Matt Spector is formerly of Havas and the change agency SS+K and now advises the USA for the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. He tweets @mspec

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