Campaigns are turning to Twitter this year to ding their opponents directly. We saw some signs of this trend earlier in the cycle as Republican presidential candidates jockeyed for position. Now that Mitt Romney’s the nominee-to-be, his campaign and President Obama’s team regularly trade shots via Tweet.
David Axelrod and Romney campaign manager Eric Fehrnstrom have emerged as their respective campaigns’ primary duelists, but even Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, took to Twitter to respond to the recent “Ann Romney never worked a day in her life” kerfluffle with Hilary Rosen.
The audience for these exchanges is once again those journalists, bloggers and activists who dominate the political twitterverse. The tweets themselves serve as fodder for news pieces and blog posts. Of course, campaigns have sniped at each other for years via press releases, public statements and TV ads, but Twitter speeds up the process dramatically. It also personalizes it. We’re talking about Axelrod tweeting, for instance, not the Obama campaign in the abstract.
Finally, watch for more “hashtag hijacks,” where one side tries to trample on the other side’s message of the day. One important point: campaigns will have to make sure that these day-to-day exchanges don’t distract from their ultimate goal, which is to win the election. Winning a day’s news coverage here and there is good, but it’s only one piece of the wholesale/retail puzzle.
But because Twitter duels take place in public, they’re going to get noticed whether they advance a campaign’s long run strategy or not.
Faster and faster
Twitter is a major contributor to another trend—as the company’s Peter Greenberger said at CampaignTech, “rapid response” is now measured in seconds. A far cry from 1992, when Bill Clinton’s “War Room” was celebrated for its ability to reply to a development within the same day’s news cycle.
Even online video is getting faster with the DNC in particular excelling at turning out videos overnight that paint Mitt “corporations are people” Romney in an unflattering light. Speed is essential in the modern political communications environment, but it’s also dangerous since a Tweet’s 140-character-limit leaves plenty of room for a big mistake. Even a deleted tweet can live forever if someone retweets it in time. Those back-and-forths between campaign staff are all fun and games until someone writes something insane, offensive or just off message.
Twitter gaffes are likely to stay with us, though, because needing to respond immediately leaves little time for review (sorry, lawyers). Campaigns will have to trust their staff to respond appropriately, but they’re also likely to try to put a little distance between themselves and their spokespeople at times (“Bob was speaking on his own behalf today, not the campaign’s”).
A likely development: candidates’ own Twitter feeds are likely to stay somewhat above the fray, with staff instead using their personal accounts to do the dirty work.
Integration is key
With so many moving parts in a modern campaign, making them work together is both essential and difficult. Data provides a great example since campaigns can easily end up with different databases including many of the same people. But if the fundraising software can’t talk to the grassroots management database which is isolated from the email list, campaigns can’t use the various pots of data as effectively as they otherwise could.
Obama 2012’s mysterious “Project Narwhal” aims to fix that problem by creating a single data infrastructure for the entire campaign. It’s no easy task considering that we’re talking about an organization with thousands of employees and volunteers that will be spending hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few months. But if it succeeds, it will be a model for campaigns up and down the scale.
And we’re not just talking about data. All parts of a campaign’s online presence need to work together, reinforcing each other and creating a “virtuous spiral” of increasing efficiency. Easier said than done, but it’s likely to give one side an edge in tight races across the country.
Delany writes the Technology Bytes column for Campaigns & Elections. He's also the founder and editor of Epolitics.com, and author of the recent e-book, "How Campaigns Can Use the Internet to Win in 2012."