Columns » Jay Barth

#2012: The Twitter Election



Every few election cycles a new technology breaks through, altering in fundamental ways how politics operates in America. This cycle's transformative technology is Twitter, the microblogging program that allows commenters to send along analysis, links and photos in messages up to 140 characters in length.

From radio advertising, first used in 1924, to the Eisenhower campaign's introduction of television ads in 1952, to the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign's targeting of voters geographically through tailored ads via newly dominant cable television, to John McCain's first campaign's use of the Internet as an instant fundraising mechanism, to the rise of YouTube and similar video technologies that showed the power to undermine a candidacy with Virginia Sen. George Allen's "macaca moment" in 2006, to the Obama campaign's embrace of emerging forms of social media to create an online community around the campaign in 2008, the story of the last century has been new technologies layering one atop another to create an increasingly sophisticated, and sometimes messier, American politics.

The 2012 campaign will be known as the first Twitter election. Twitter launched just over six years ago and for its first couple of years was something of a boutique service used by only a small number of adherents. Indeed, on Election Day 2008, only 1.8 million tweets went out all day. Now, that many are sent in a matter of minutes.

On one level, Twitter simply serves as an extension of other forms of political media, sending links to newspaper and blog articles, videos and fundraising appeals. In other ways, however, Twitter is a decidedly different media.

First, Twitter establishes a venue for professional and amateur commentators alike to have their say about ongoing political events (with the 140 character limitations promoting especially pithy — or snarky — comments). Twitter is, therefore, "democratic," allowing all to participate in this dialogue. We also know that, at this moment, nationally it trends Democratic with that party's adherents making more use of the tool. While only a slightly larger percentage of Americans watched the convention acceptance speech of President Obama than that of Governor Romney, there was a peak of 52,757 tweets-per-minute during the President's speech, a figure nearly four times as large as the peak for Romney. Arkansas provides an exception to this national norm as the state's Republican activists and politicos have embraced the technology more fully than Democrats.

Second, through the one-click ease of retweeting, Twitter has the ability to make a political story "go epidemic" in a matter of minutes. Just ask Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin. His comments that pregnancies cannot occur from "legitimate rape" appeared on a local Sunday morning talk show in mid-August. Within a couple of hours, the website Talking Points Memo had blogged and tweeted the story. Then the retweeting began. Before 6 p.m. that evening, Akin had tweeted an explanation of his statements. By that point, however, a national call for Akin to vacate his nomination had begun, most loudly from within his own party. Compare these events with what happened when Arkansas U.S. Senate candidate Fay Boozman made strikingly similar comments in 1998. While the statement certainly cost Boozman politically, there was no call from national leaders for Boozman to step down. The key difference in the cases: Twitter.

Just as important, Twitter has shown its power to reframe a story within a matter of minutes. Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's speech accepting his nomination at the Republican National Convention was well-delivered. However, numerous tweets during the speech highlighted various untruths. Thus, the immediate post-speech analyses were peppered with these critiques. Back in the pre-Twitter day, cable news fact-checkers would have highlighted the miscues several days after the speech but that would not have been the frame through which the speech was immediately viewed.

We know that technological change in politics will continue to occur at an ever-increasing pace. (As my students now are heard to say, "Facebook is dead.") For the next several election cycles, however, those candidates who can harness Twitter as a force for good or, at a minimum, avoid its potentially fatal strikes (e.g. Congressman Anthony Weiner's 2011 sexually explicit tweet) will be starkly advantaged in politics at every level.

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