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How Twitter is winning the 2012 US election
In the 2012 US presidential election, it is clear the brief age of political blogs shaping the political narrative has passed and we are now in the era of Twitter. The proof is in Twitter's big role in shaping the coverage and the winners and losers of this month's presidential debates.
At a seminar on the influence of social media on the presidential election – held at the Democrat convention in Charlotte – Garance Franke-Ruta, a senior editor for the Atlantic, declared:
"[The] last cycle was all about blogs and the incremental journalism of blogs. This cycle we have really a Twitter campaign where a lot of the conversation has moved off the blogs onto Twitter especially for political insiders."
Hamish McKenzie, a reporter for the tech site Pandodaily who writes on social media and politics, says political blogs have gone from being the "first and fast reactors" to being made "almost obsolete by Twitter".
Twitter's advocates have big numbers on their side. Adam Sharp, with the barely tweetable job title of "head of government, news and social innovation" at Twitter, noted there had been 360,000 total tweets during the two conventions in 2008. The total for both in 2012 was nearly 14m. Mitt Romney's speech peaked at 14,000 tweets per minute. (tpm) Michelle Obama in her convention speech doubled that to 28,000 – and Barack Obama then took it up to 54,000tpm.
The first presidential debate earlier this month smashed those records. There were a total of 10.3m tweets, with the peak of 159,000tpm for moderator Jim Lehrer's "Let's not" knockback of a Romney request. Obama's personal record was lifted to 153,000tpm for his "I had five seconds left" counter to a Lehrer reminder on time limits.
Adam Sharp argues that these numbers are evidence of "a return to retail politics, the idea that people can be directly engaged in the political process on a one-on-one basis again, not only interacting with the candidate and issues but with one another." He claims Twitter is showing the moments when people across the country "were turning to people next to them on the proverbial global couch and saying, 'Did you see that?'" Social media is "measuring for the first time natural conversation … that a cycle ago would have been behind the closed doors of coffee shops and office water coolers".
While some are skeptical – McKenzie argues that the number of tweets is a crude gauge, while Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Centre warns that only 13% of Americans are using Twitter – everyone agrees that the main impact of Twitter has been to speed up the news cycle.
Franke-Ruta gave the example of a 21-minute news cycle, from incident to report to counter-report, all driven by a tweet: Mitt Romney joked that no one had ever asked to see his birth certificate. This was tweeted three minutes later, was on Politico's website after four minutes, video was available on Buzzfeed after five minutes, and the Romney team had a clarifying statement out within 21 minutes. In Sharp's words:
"We have shifted from a 24-hours news cycle to a 140-character one."
Twitter has challenged the hallowed status of post-event media punditry, which seems increasingly irrelevant as verdicts are declared long before the talking heads get a turn. Sharp noted that the peak Twitter moment for convention speeches was the minute they ended, as the flow of tweets then tailed off very quickly. The mocking of Clint Eastwood and his empty chair was under way well before the pundits got a word in.
Twitter also set the tone for the first presidential debate. Focus groups dialing minute-by-minute responses and post-debate polls all showed Romney winning. But it was liberal comedian Bill Maher's savage Twitter commentary on Obama's flat performance that dominated the early coverage.
Obama supporters tried a "style versus substance" line in post-debate media appearances, but you could see their hearts weren't in it.
Joe Rospars, head of Obama 's digital campaign, argued in Charlotte that Twitter has made "the elite conversation a much bigger spectacle now". He wryly noted that previously after a big speech, attention turned to the three or four pundits reacting on each television channel. But now:
"It's not just these people but everyone who has ever been on television all weighing in at once online."
There is certainly a risk that Twitter will lead to ever faster but shallower politics. Romney's response to the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi was widely criticized as intemperate, premature and in breach of longstanding protocols of political unity in the face of attacks. John Pitney, a politics professor in California, attributed Romney's response to "a Twitter-driven media environment [where] candidates feel pressure to react to events immediately". The Jack Welch tweet questioning the official September job figures triggered off a day of bizarre media coverage on whether official statistics could really be manipulated, as Welch seemed to claim.
Stories emerge faster and burn out faster, while fuller consideration of their importance is lost. Romney's comments on the killing of the US ambassador might have proved his "3am phone call failure moment," according to McKenzie, but the caravan quickly moved on to the "47%" observations of Romney from a secretly-taped fundraiser.
Helped by the Twitter reaction, Romney's debate win reset the polling numbers, with Obama now clinging to bare leads in some swing states. In the coming debates, it is a sure bet the campaigns will be lining up surrogate tweeters to respond – and it's likely that the left-leaning ones will be more loyal next time around.