Presidential debates are almost always remembered for standout moments rather than expansive policy proposals. Like Nixon’s sickly appearance in 1960 and Al Gore’s infamous sighs in 2000, the memorable moments of 2012 will live on even as the candidates’ specific plans fade into history. This year’s campaign, however, saw the coming of age of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr — tools that have begun to play a major role on the centuries-old political stage. If the traditional media etched debate moments into our collective conscious with a soft pencil, new media is doing the same with a razor. While it’s tempting to say that debate sound bites serve as substitutes for real discussion, it seems they in fact play a much different, more important role.
This wasn’t always the case. In years past, memorable debate moments were analyzed by a select group of television and newspaper journalists. The political narrative was created not by the people, but for them. Today, the Internet has democratized this model; the marriage between social media and creative political junkies has infused once empty sound bites with newfound meaning. Easily sharable Internet “memes” have magnified the these one-liners’ effect on the democratic process. These can take the form of Facebook posts, tweets, images, videos, or websites. But no matter the format, they serve as vehicles for important cultural commentary and point to the changing character of political media in America.
At times, it seems we live in a sort of “140 character culture” with a news cycle that’s forever-shrinking. The cycle, however, has gained in variety what it lost in length. Today, a newsworthy line at a debate is covered from a slew of different angles before it begins to gather dust. Given the dynamic nature of the Internet, these memorable debate moments are no longer static, frozen in time; they are always evolving with the issues at hand.
The first reporting angle is of course the live, unedited broadcast of the actual event. This coverage is shaped by the setting in which the event is taking place – in this case, the debate stage. Debates are uniquely performative in nature and thus are prone to produce highly scripted, pre-planned lines. Jeffery Alexander explains this idea eloquently in his book The Performance of Politics:
[Politics] is theatrical even when it’s incredibly authentic … There is a huge performative aspect … People know that campaigns are designed down to the very last second. And I think the public is incredibly suspicious of what even seem like spontaneous moments. People know how it works.
Two of the most famous debate lines of the campaign season were born out of this strange brand of political theatre. In the presidential debate on October 16, 2012, Governor Romney responded to moderator Candy Crowley’s question, “Pay equality for women?” by saying:
I went to my staff, and I said, “How come all the people for these jobs are all men?” They said, “Well these are the people that have the qualifications.” And I said, “Well, gosh, can’t we find some women that are also qualified?” And so … I went to a number of women’s groups and said, “Can you help us find folks,” and they brought us whole binders full of women.
During the debate six days later, President Obama made an equally memorable comment in response to Romney’s disappointment with the downsizing of the navy:
You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed.
This first angle of coverage is nothing new to 2012; debates have been televised live for decades. However, 2012 saw the creation of a brand new phenomenon that did not exist in any meaningful way even four years ago. This new layer of coverage was driven by the public rather than veteran journalists. Before the debates were even over, these one-liners launched a “binder full of memes,” as one Huffington Post article put it. The candidates’ quips were Internet gold for politically active Internet users, who wasted no time turning these moments into parody Facebook pages, Tumblr blogs, and Twitter posts.
Tweets marked with the hashtag “#Debates” soared to a high of 104,704 per minute at 9:36 PM, mere moments after Romney made his now infamous “binders” comment.
At least five “Binders Full of Women” Facebook pages were created during and immediately after the October 16 debate, with the most popular one receiving over 200,000 likes by the end of the night.1 The page made its first post at 9:47 PM that night saying, “‘Women. Bring me binders full of them.’ — Mitt Romney, paraphrase”.2 A Tumblr blog called “Binders Full of Women” gained over 11,000 followers in the first 24 hours3 and almost 800,000 daily visits during the first week and a half. The first image was posted to the site at 9:56 PM on October 16, 2012 – a full 34 minutes before the debate had even ended. Below are some examples of the kind of content that was featured.
I contacted 23-year-old Veronica de Souza, the Tumblr page’s owner, who offered me a comment on the whole event:
I honestly had zero expectations when I made the blog. I was home alone, eating popcorn and watching the debates. I was pretty upset about losing my job that day after the [social media] startup I worked at failed … I heard Mr. Romney stumble through his answer to one of the most important questions (to me) of that debate and when he said binders full of women I giggled and checked to see if the Tumblr URL was available … After a few tweets, the thing exploded. I wish someone was there to take a picture of my face when it was happening.
De Souza was not alone; Google search traffic for the phrase “binders full of women” skyrocketed by 425 percent during the debate.4 Several Twitter accounts were created including @RomneysBinder, which had over 30,000 followers by the time the candidates walked off the stage. Satirical reviews of binders on Amazon also quickly began to emerge. One read, “For any of you who might be considering, like me, purchasing this binder based on the reviews, let me just point out one glaring omission: While this is a lovely, multi-purpose binder, IT DOES NOT COME WITH WOMEN.”3 YouTube saw a quieter response, probably because of the effort required to make a worthwhile video. The most popular one on binders full of women was posted the night of the debate and has received 90,000 views as of writing. It was created by a songwriter who has been posting a song a day to YouTube for almost 1,400 days.
The response to President Obama’s remark was similar, but slightly more muted. Almost immediately, the Twitter hashtag #horsesandbayonets became the number one trending topic in the U.S. and the third in the world. The phrase was mentioned an incredible 105,767 times per minute at its peak.
Several Tumblr blogs emerged, the first one making a post as early as 10:04 PM on October 22, 2012 – just minutes after the line left the President’s mouth. Dozens of Facebook pages were created in honor of Obama’s joke; the most popular one received around 5,000 of likes and began to post at 10:40PM, several minutes after debate had ended.6 Below are some of the related images that gained popularity online.
This rapid real-time response can be seen as an attempt by the politically minded public to penetrate the scripted nature of the debates that Jeffery Alexander describes. By participating in this process, the people took issues into their own hands and added a sense of authenticity to these otherwise over-rehearsed events. Information used to flow on more of a one-way street, down from powerful campaign politicos and journalists to viewers and readers. But now, the media has in many ways lost control of the political narrative and the reporting process has been democratized. Campaign directors and the traditional media cannot help but acknowledge that they are no longer the only ones doing the creating. The images, Facebook and Tumblr pages, Twitter accounts, and videos were far too numerous to ignore. They had no choice but to respond.
At 10:04 PM on the night of the second presidential debate came this tweet from the Obama campaign:
Mitt Romney still won’t say whether he’d stand up for equal pay, but he did tell us he has “binders full of women.” http://t.co/Twy8XlH0— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) October 17, 2012
The following day, the official Obama YouTube account posted a one minute advertisement mocking Romney for his comments. The ad contrasts Obama’s legitimate policy proposals with Romney’s awkward anecdote, using circus-like music in the background to magnify the effect. Paul Ryan was forced to address Romney’s comments the following morning on CBS This Morning saying, “ … So what he was pointing out was that he went out of his way to find qualified women to serve in senior positions in his administration. And he did just that, and he had one of the most exceptional records of governors in the country.”4
And in an effort to combat mounting criticism, the GOP released this image, declaring, “We can’t afford four more years like the last four.”5
The day after the debate, Mitt Romney was even forced to begin talking about women’s issues on the campaign trail, something he had largely avoided in days past. “This president has failed America’s women. They’ve suffered in terms of getting jobs, they’ve suffered in terms of falling into poverty,” he remarked.6
These responses point to the very real impact that user-generated memes had on the political process. Powerful players, including the candidates themselves, were forced to speak out due to the virality of the “binders full of women” moment. In years past, this one-liner might have easily been a nonstarter. Connected citizens, however, ensured that this issue did not get buried in the pages of a newspaper or trapped in a one-off highlight reel. The people were the first to the metaphorical “presses,” not traditional publishers. “Old” media could not ignore this explosion of grassroots content; traditional outlets had to report on the memes themselves rather than just the original quote.9 Articles like “Binders Full of Women Spawns Three Ring Circus on Web” (WSJ) and “Romney Saddled With Horses and Bayonets Meme” (Washington Post) lent credence to the public’s efforts.
The creative, comical nature of the parodies combined with the reach of social networks helped them reach a critical mass of people. Content creators online went where objective journalists often could not, adding invaluable, opinionated commentary to the mix. And it was the people at large that decided which moments of the debate were important, not traditional media types.
In the midst of all this online discussion, Governor Romney almost always seemed to be on the wrong end of the jokes. The Obama campaign was able to more effectively utilize the Internet in their quest to shape the narrative arc of the election. As Jeffery Alexander explains, politics is a performance and the goal is to establish an inspiring narrative for the actor, or politician. Candidates are more symbols than people, stand-ins for ideas much larger than themselves. Performance, however, has to do with small moments that help define the brand of a politician like “binders of women” or “horses and bayonets.” At the core of candidate-manufactured images is the attempt to manipulate and control media coverage. As we have seen with the grassroots web-based response to “binders” and “bayonets,” this is no longer a feasible goal. The differentiating factor between the Obama and Romney responses was their willingness to embrace this new reality.
Voters and political strategists alike must always ask how the rival campaign is trying to alter or restructure their candidate’s image. When the President made his bayonets comment, the Republicans and conservative media quickly tried (and failed) to seize the line and reshape the Obama narrative. Chris Wallace of Fox News said, “Well, as it turns out, in the middle of the debate, after he heard [Obama’s statement], a Marine tweeted Fox News and said the Marines still use bayonets. So it may not be clear who doesn’t understand what the military currently uses.”7 The right-leaning news website Newsmax8 declared Obama’s comments “may go down as political blunder” and quoted U.S. intelligence officer Fred Fleitz who felt the comment would “cost him an enormous number of votes in Virginia.” Further, Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia spoke out on Twitter:
The Republicans were scrambling to use this moment against the President and redefine him as an ignorant, condescending, and incompetent commander. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign saw the positive response to the comment on the web and milked it for all it was worth. On the night of the debate, they purchased the term “bayonets” on Twitter, which ensured that this tweet from the president would appear at the top of the screen whenever anyone searched the word:9
President Obama on Romney: "When it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s." #RomneyWrong— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) October 23, 2012
Additionally, Obama for America set up cavalrymenforromney.com, a satirical website that links to the president’s official national security plan. Fully aware of the dynamic nature of the campaign, Obama’s team intelligently responded in real-time to the positive feedback they had received in the blogosphere. Romney, on the other hand, purchased the promoted trends #AreYouBetterOff and #CantAfford4More – tags that were decidedly generic and staid.10 The conservative media and the Romney campaign tried to use an old, top-down model on this new medium. And in their efforts to dictate the narrative, they lost control of it. The Obama camp kept Romney from redefining their candidate’s brand by simply working with the narrative its supporters had already established online.
It is no coincidence, however, that the Obama campaign had so much online content to draw from. The president garnered more than 60 percent of the youth vote (ages 18 to 29) – the group that is far and away the most active on social networking sites. This demographic was able to generate a plethora of viral content that allowed them to a participate in a process much larger than themselves. “People asked me why there were little to no anti-Obama memes,” de Souza said. “That’s easy, anti-Obama memes don’t bring in traffic because the internet very obviously leans left.” de Souza also felt that, overall, the Obama campaign played the social media game far more adeptly than its counterpart:
His tumblr and twitter were great and constantly on top of things. They were strategic, but also friendly and engaging. As someone who does what they do, but for a brand, I think that entire team did an amazing job.
What made this social media storm possible is the explosive growth in people who watch television while connected to the Internet on their smartphones and tablets. According to a study done by Nielsen at the beginning of December, an estimated 41 percent of device owners use their gadgets while watching television at least once a day. “Twitter has become the second screen experience for television,” said the vice president of social media at Nielsen.16 This trend has enabled the immediate creation of shareable content, closing the gap between the moment a line is spoken and the moment it is parodied.
Backed by the power of social media, these sound bites were able to have an effect that far outlasted their short length. Sites like de Souza’s were able to take these small moments and turn them into something much bigger than they might have been were they uttered in the pre-Internet era. Their posts kept these one-liners relevant even outside the context of the debate and ensured that people did not stop discussing the issues at hand.
For instance, a democratic super PAC called American Bridge 21st Century purchased the domain name bindersfullofwomen.com and uses it to advocate women’s issues, though the debates are long over. “We bought it because we could tell it would be a memorable moment from the debate,” said the PAC’s communications director. “We were sort of on standby, knowing that Internet memes like this can solidify within seconds.”11
The sound bites’ virality provoked real action in the offline world as well. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, for example, protested as binders in front of the Ohio Republican party’s headquarters. “Binders full of women” also led to the creation of imitators like Binders Full of Gays, bringing issues to the table that were outside the scope of the original comment. The Facebook page now has 329,542 likes and has become a very active presence online, posting several links a day to news articles on any number of liberal causes. The “binders full of women” social media sites even made posts encouraging people to go out and vote on election day. Facebook placed an “I Voted” button at the top of the newsfeed and found that those people who “liked” the Binders Full of Women page were more likely to vote than those that did not.12
Notably, the “binders” seem to have outlived the “bayonets.” People related on a more personal level with Romney’s “binder” comment; perhaps women’s rights issues hit home more deeply than a reduction in the number of ships ever could. “I didn’t make anything about Horses & Bayonets because I don’t like forced memes,” de Souza told me. “I didn’t think that was funny or as important as the [binders full of women] moment in the 2nd debate.” Though de Souza is only one person, her experience is representative of that of many Internet content creators this election cycle. It was not the media that dictated what was important, but rather the public at large. The memes and parody sites that emerged helped broaden the scope of soundbites beyond their original intent.
These memorable moments were signposts along the road to the presidential election and they are almost certainly what we will remember about this election cycle going forward. What’s interesting to consider, however, is the notion that some of these sound bites may never really disappear into history any longer. For all we know, the Binders Full of Women Facebook page may still be active when the next election rolls around – trumpeting the views of the left.
The infrastructure required to make this idea a reality was simply not there in 2008; Twitter had only 2 million users, Facebook, one tenth of its current user base and Tumblr was just several months old. Hype aside, what we have experienced in 2012 really is a new phenomenon. “It’s still unbelievable to me that people are writing about a silly blog I made,” de Souza confessed to me at the end of our short interview. While she may have a point, there must be something more going on here. This is is not just about de Souza; it’s about the thousands of others out there just like her who contributed their own content to the political sphere and really changed the nature of the race. For years, our media has been more authoritarian than democratic, but there’s no reason it should or will stay that way.
Politicians are no longer the only “performers” in this play. Voters themselves are now performing their reactions to debate moments on the web – a virtual stage that’s fast becoming as equally important as the physical ones. Using blogs, images, and videos they were able to gain some control of the narrative and democratize the reporting process. The political theater is today far more inclusive than it has ever been before – incorporating an invaluable cast of voters that previously went unheard.
Chai, Barbara. “‘Binders Full of Women’ Spawns Three-Ring Circus on Web.” Wall Street Journal. N.p., 17 Oct. 2012. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.↩
Leuch, Greg. “Binders Full of Women.” Know Your Meme. N.p., 9 Nov. 2012. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.↩
Vamburkar, Meenal. “Paul Ryan Clarifies ‘Binders Full Of Women’ Remark On CBS This Morning.” Mediaite. N.p., 17 Oct. 2012. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.↩
Collier, Kevin. “GOP Responds to “Binders Full of Women” Meme with “Obama’s Empty Binder”” Daily Dot. N.p., 17 Oct. 2012. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.↩
Friedman, Emily. “Mitt Romney Says President Obama Has Failed America’s Women as He Recalls ‘Great’ Debate.” ABC News. N.p., 17 Oct. 2012. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.↩
Haraldsson, Hrafnkell. “Republicans Scramble to Make Horses and Bayonets Work for Them.” Politics USA. N.p., 23 Oct. 2012. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.↩
Patten, David. “‘Horses and Bayonets’ – A Political Gaffe by Obama? Read Latest Breaking News from Newsmax.com.” Newsmax. N.p., 23 Oct. 2012. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.↩
Yurow, Mat (@myurow). “Obama campaign has already bought the Twitter search term for ‘Bayonets’.” October 22, 2012. Tweet.↩
Wolfson, Gena. “Paying to Be No. 1: Romney, Twitter, and the Debates.” MSNBC. N.p., 23 Oct. 2012. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.↩
Fink, Erica. “Bindersfullofwomen.com Snapped up in 90 Seconds.” CNN Money. N.p., 17 Oct. 2012. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.↩
Martinez, Fidel. “Facebook Releases Statistics from 2012 “I’m Voting” App.” Daily Dot. N.p., 19 Nov. 2012. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.↩