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Big bird, binders and now bayonets - how the final presidential debate was seen by Twitter

Commentators from both sides of the Atlantic offer sharp analysis on the US election campaign.

When London woke up this morning to find #horsesandbayonets trending on Twitter, it was fairly obvious that the third and final presidential debate for 2012 had provided Twitter fodder on the level of the first debate’s #BigBird moment and the second’s #BindersFullOfWomen.

Not to worry, Boca Raton, Florida has not suffered from an invasion from the 19th Century. Instead, President Obama was finally able to answer Governor Romney’s charge that the US Navy has fewer ships now than it did in 1916. Romney has used the line often on the campaign trail, and in using it in the foreign policy themed debate, he opened himself up to a biting and pithy retort:

“We also have fewer horses and bayonets... We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. The question is not a game of battleship where we are counting ships. The question is, what are our capabilities?"

–President Obama

It was an instant hit, the immediate winning one-liner of the night. From then on, Romney couldn’t help but seem to be on the defensive and, even worse, couldn’t help but seem less statesmanlike, less presidential and less wise. Romney brought an almost schoolboy sense of the world to the debate table. Though even a school boy should know that Iran is not a land-locked country, nor does it share a border with Syria. Romney was at his best in the first Debate in Denver and perhaps at his worst in Boca.

And on Twitter, the play by play showed it.

In this year’s presidential race, Twitter has provided an instant replay of each important line, allowing voters and viewers to participate in critiquing the candidates’ performances in a way that has never been so democratic before. Or rather, it has brought “viewer participation” from the reality and talent show genre straight into the political sphere.

In the past, “viewer participation” in a political debate would have been narrowed to talking to friends and family and going to the polls on Election Day. Now, Americans watching the debates were able to decide what the key points worth highlighting were, and at what moments each of the candidate floundered.

But will “viewer participation” affect turnout? Will voters turn up on 6 November to vote President Obama out of the (White) House? Or will they turn up to make sure that Romney makes it to the final round? Will this new political discourse in 140 characters translate to actual participation?

In a race that will be determined by turnout, the campaign that is able to turn Tweeps into Voters will likely be the ones having a very big party on 20 January.

Emily Hunt is director of insights at Edelman Berland, Edelman’s insights and analytics subsidiary. She is a dual US/UK citizen, and has a strong interest in politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Emily has an MA in Political Campaign Management from New York University and started her career as a political operative in the US before moving into polling. You can follow her on Twitter at @emilyinpublic or find out more about her here.