Romney and Obama focus on Twitter in hard-fought states

John Timpane / The Philadelphia Inquirer /


Published Jul 16, 2012 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

PHILADELPHIA — Can Twitter matter?

The Republican and Democratic parties think so. In this tight presidential race, a national battle is on. And the ammo includes thousands of tweets, 140-character messages shot off to hundreds of thousands of followers, a blizzard of news, talking points, zingers, datelines and instructions to the faithful.

Nowhere is it fiercer than in Pennsylvania. The commonwealth has lost 45 percent of its electoral clout since 1932, and it hasn’t backed a GOP presidential candidate since 1988. But in a year when every electoral vote is golden, Republicans swear it’s in play and Democrats are fighting as if it is.

In New Jersey, which is not considered a swing state, Twitter is but one among many media. In Pennsylvania, swinging like crazy, Twitter might be crucial.

As Kirsten Kukowski, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, says, Twitter “has become how news gets started, and how that news is amplified.”

How do their strategies differ? For Team Romney (MittRomney), it’s a way to broadcast talking points. For Team Obama (BarackObama), it’s for grassroots organizing.

Michael Stricker, director of social media strategy for Webimax, a media consulting firm in Mount Laurel, studied a few hundred tweets from each camp in the last month. Based on that, he says Romney tweets are aggressive (45 percent negative) and almost always have links to articles, news, and videos for users to share: “BarackObama’s health care promises have fallen short. RT (retweet) and share this infographic if you agree http://mi.tt/Mq9IHJ”

“A great deal of effort,” Stricker says, “goes into uniting the party faithful by distributing potent talking points.”

Obama’s strategy is to stay positive and personable (tweets from the presidential BlackBerry are signed “-bo”), and to keep his huge Web-spawned organization organized: “We’ll be live-tweeting the President’s speech on Obama2012 — follow along for the latest.” He, too, stays on the attack (35 percent negative), suggesting that, as Stricker says, “there do not appear to be any ‘kid gloves’ to be removed.”

Thanks in part to the historic 2008 organizational effort that netted more than 13 million supporters, as of July 3 Obama (1,412,126) enjoyed an advantage of almost 10-1 among self-identified U.S. residents over Romney (154,418), according to PeekAnalytics, a social-audience measurement firm in New York.

Their followers making $50,000 to $100,000 a year are comparable. A greater proportion of Obama followers earn less than $50,000 a year (30.1 percent as opposed to 22.5 percent), and a greater proportion of Romney followers top $100,000 (28.1 percent vs. 22.2 percent). Seventy percent of pro-Romney tweeters are male, vs. 51 percent for Obama.

Both sides use Twitter to “push message.”

Remember when Obama said “the private sector is doing fine” in a June 8 news conference? “We invented the hashtag #doingfine even before he was done speaking, and it went wildfire,” says the GOP’s Kukowski. A hashtag lets users search Twitter for tweets on a specific topic. The hashtag #doingfine helped ignite widespread mockery of a purportedly out-of-touch president.

The RNC was out with a video within minutes. “And we pushed that on Twitter,” says Kukowski.

Reacting to the redistricting map by the Republican-controlled state legislature, Democratic tweeters created the hashtag #pagerrymander.

“That was one of our most successful social media campaigns, Twitter, Facebook, and a microsite just on redistricting,” says Lindsay Frichtman, social-media director for the state Democrats, from her Philadelphia office. “Everyone said the new Seventh District looked like a pterodactyl.”

The Dems say #EtchASketch and the GOP counters with #doingfine; the Dems see that and raise it with #dog ontheroof. The GOP comes back with #ObamaDogRecipes, since in his memoir “The Audacity of Hope” Obama says he may have eaten dog while growing up in Indonesia.

Tweeters tweet “as many topics as possible, as often as possible,” says the GOP’s Caras. Adds the Democrats’ Frichtman: “It’s not like another medium, where you put something out there and check later. With Twitter, if your followers don’t hear from you frequently, you’re not using it the right way.”

The latest from the campaign trail: ‘I take it back’

The quotations come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative.

They are sent by email from the Obama headquarters in Chicago to reporters who have interviewed campaign officials under one major condition: the press office has veto power over what statements can be quoted and attributed by name.

Quote approval is standard practice for the Obama campaign. It is also commonplace throughout Washington and on the campaign trail.

The Romney campaign insists that journalists interviewing any of Mitt Romney’s five sons agree to use only quotations that are approved by the press office. And Romney advisers almost always require that reporters ask them for the green light on anything from a conversation that they would like to include in an article.

Many journalists spoke about the editing only if granted anonymity, an irony that did not escape them. No one said that the editing altered the meaning of a quote. The changes were almost always small and seemingly unnecessary, they said.

Those who did speak on the record said the restrictions seem only to be growing. “It’s not something I’m particularly proud of because there’s a part of me that says, ‘Don’t do it, don’t agree to their terms,’” said Major Garrett, a correspondent for the National Journal.

— New York Times News Service