|While watching the GOP debates this year, or even if I am not watching them in real time, I follow the Twitter feeds for Larry Sabato, Nate Silver and Howard Kurtz. |
In Nonstop Whirlwind of G.O.P. Campaigns, Twitter Is a Critical Tool
By ASHLEY PARKER
New York Times
January 28, 2012
When Newt Gingrich said in a recent debate that he was a man of “grandiose” ideas, Mitt Romney’s campaign pounced. It sent mocking Twitter messages with a hashtag, “#grandiosenewt”, encouraging voters to add their own examples of occasions when they felt Mr. Gingrich had been “grandiose.”
Within minutes, the hashtag was trending on Twitter. Reporters picked up on it, sending out their own Twitter posts and writing their own articles. The result: for at least one news cycle, the Romney campaign had stamped a virtual “grandiose” on Mr. Gingrich’s forehead.
If the 2008 presidential race embraced a 24/7 news cycle, four years later politicos are finding themselves in the middle of an election most starkly defined by Twitter, complete with 24-second news cycles and pithy bursts.
With 100 million active users, more than 10 times as many as in the 2008 election, Twitter has emerged as a critical tool for political campaigns, allowing them to reach voters, gather data and respond to charges immediately. But like most new media tools, it also carries danger for the campaigns. It can quickly define the political debate, whether candidates like it or not, and a single 140-character missive can turn into a nightmare.
“Twitter has changed the whole way that politics works,” said Teddy Goff, the digital director of President Obama’s re-election campaign. “Not just the press element, but the organizing element and the fund-raising element and the relationship building that all campaigns try to do.”
Perhaps no Republican campaign monitors Twitter more closely than Mr. Romney’s operation, which believes that it can ferret out bias among reporters by analyzing their posts. Top aides say they watch Mr. Romney’s events with a Twitter stream open on their computer. Their war room compiles all the Twitter messages from the press corps at every event and e-mails them to the campaign staff.
“Twitter is the ultimate real-time engagement mechanism, so it’s moved everything to a much faster speed,” said Zac Moffatt, the digital director for the Romney campaign. “You have no choice but to be actively engaging it at all times.”
Mr. Romney’s aides say they can get a sense of where a story is headed before it is published simply by reading reporters’ Twitter messages. If reporters have flagged a particular incident on Twitter — for instance, the woman who stood up at South Carolina event and asked Mr. Romney, a Mormon, if he believed “in the divine saving grace of Jesus Christ” — Mr. Romney’s aides might pull him aside before a press conference and warn him that the topic is likely to come up.
“It’s a leading indicator of what people are thinking about,” Mr. Moffatt said. “It’s almost like an early warning signal: ‘This is what someone’s thinking.’ ”
The campaign will push back on posts that it thinks are incorrect or unfair, and nearly every reporter who covers Mr. Romney has received a Twitter-inspired lecture, ranging from a simple “not cool” to something angrier. (This reporter is no exception.)
The Romney campaign is not the only one to use Twitter as a real-time news tracker. Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign, said Twitter allowed the team to see what was resonating with both voters and reporters.
“If it’s headed in a way you think will be helpful, you can fan the flames,” Mr. LaBolt said. “Or you can reach out to people to say, ‘Oh, that’s not what we really meant.’ ”
“You catch problems earlier,” Mr. LaBolt added, “but things haven’t gone through a filter, so you’re almost playing Whac-a-Mole to shoot things down.”
With Twitter, rapid response has an even bigger role, with campaigns needing creative ways — video links, clever hashtags, pithy quips — to push their message, hoping to attract the attention of reporters and supporters. R. C. Hammond, a spokesman for Mr. Gingrich, explained: “There’s a bunch of Mountain Dew-drinking college kids that keep an eye on it all the time.”
Adam Sharp, who manages government and politics for Twitter, said the site provided “a scalable approach to retail politics,” giving voters intimate, one-one-one interaction with politicians.
To make supporters feel invested in Mr. Obama’s re-election effort, Mr. Goff said, the campaign uses Twitter to provide them with “content that is real and interesting and timely and local.”
Andrew Hemingway, who handles digital operations and social media for Mr. Gingrich’s political team, said that during the South Carolina primary, which Mr. Gingrich won by nearly 13 points, he used Twitter to reach out to voters who had posted positively about guns, a group he felt would be receptive to Mr. Gingrich.
“I’ll e-mail them links and press releases and stories,” Mr. Hemingway said. “Almost every day, I’m pushing a bunch of that out to them, and they’re pushing a bunch of our message out to the public.”
Of the four Republican candidates, every one but Ron Paul is using Twitter in a coordinated effort to reach voters.
Campaigns can pay for “promoted” messages and accounts so that when users search Twitter for certain words or phrases, the campaign’s account or a particular post is the first result.
On the morning on the Iowa caucuses, for instance, when someone searched for “#IACaucus,” the first message that surfaced was from Rick Santorum: “Morning Iowa! Today is the day! Go here to pledge your vote for me & find info on how to caucus,” with a link directing voters to a caucus page on his Web site.
The campaigns can also monitor segments of the electorate to see what arguments are resonating. During a few of Mr. Obama’s recent speeches, his campaign posted some of the lines on Twitter and watched which were most shared. “It’s a fascinating piece of data,” Mr. Goff said.
For Stuart Stevens, a top Romney strategist, Twitter is the lens through which he consumes debates. “You can just follow the reactions,” he said. “It’s basically a focus group.”
Indeed, Twitter has transformed debates, aides to various campaigns say. Mr. Hemingway said he provided Gingrich supporters he considers “influencers” with debate-night instructions, from hashtags to the best times to post. And Twitter has reduced the influence of the post-debate spin room. When Mr. Romney made his now infamous $10,000 bet, Twitter erupted, driven largely by the Democratic National Committee, which immediately began using the hashtag “#what10Kbuys.” Before the debate had ended, the incident had crystallized as a Romney mishap.
“It was a bit of the tail wagging the dog,” Mr. Goff said. “By the time the talking heads came on for postgame commentary, who knows if they had noticed it as a gaffe themselves or not, but what they said was, ‘Twitter is exploding over the $10,000 bet.’ ”
Already, cautionary Twitter tales abound. In December, a reporter at Politico offered her personal assessment of a moment with Mr. Romney on the campaign trail and posted about it.
Answering a voter’s question about his parents, Mr. Romney seemed to choke up. When the questioner urged him, “Don’t cry,” Mr. Romney responded: “I won’t cry. No, no, I won’t.”
Mr. Gingrich had recently grown misty-eyed on the trail while talking about his mother, and the reporter posted that Mr. Romney’s comment was a “crack about Gingrich weeping.” The Romney campaign says her perspective, that Mr. Romney was making fun of Mr. Gingrich, was incorrect; Charlie Mahtesian, the national politics editor at Politico, said that he believed it “was a moment that was open to interpretation” and that he supported the one his reporter offered.
Either way, several other reporters not at the event reposted the original message.
The Romney campaign, loath to be seen as mocking Mr. Gingrich for crying, quickly jumped in. In addition to calling the reporter and asking for a correction, aides began tracking down reporters who had reposted the original item — which by then had developed into a blog post on Politico’s Web site — asking that they, too, offer a clarification. It took hours of work on a single, brief remark.
But a few frustrations aside, campaigns say they will continue to embrace Twitter.
“I’ve liked how it’s applied the Strunk and White rules to writing press releases,” said Mr. Hammond, the spokesman for Mr. Gingrich. “Be short, be pithy, be engaging. I think it’s a very healthy addition.”