The 140-Character-or-Less Campaign

Twitter now has the power to drive a politician's message and news coverage

For those seeking an example of the breakneck pace of the mounting political “call and response” attack cycle, 84 minutes may very well be a new benchmark.

It took a mere one hour and 24 minutes for Mitt Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom to mount a Twitter offensive against Hilary Rosen after the Democratic strategist’s incendiary remarks on CNN last month about Romney’s wife Ann never having worked “a day in her life.”

And the most salient point of all: as responses go, Fehrnstrom’s was slow.

Welcome to the digital democracy, where Twitter has become a veritable particle accelerator for news cycles and political battles. The social media platform has given way to a ceaseless torrent of inside-baseball minutiae and partisan nitpickery. It is the home of meaningless scooplets and high-profile dustups. It is, for better or worse, the center of the political conversation, and it is transforming the way political campaigns and those who cover them do business.

“What happens on Twitter does not stay on Twitter—it is not Las Vegas,” says Peter Greenberger, Twitter’s director of political ad sales in Washington, D.C. And if anyone in Washington has reason to smile these days, it’s him.

“It’s amazing. Rosen’s initial comment was on CNN, but within seconds it exploded on Twitter and you can watch as it grew and grew until it bounced off Twitter and landed on the morning shows, evening news and the front pages of newspapers across the country,” Greenberger recounts.

Part of the reason for Twitter’s accelerated importance in the zeitgeist of political coverage stems from its stunning growth over the past three years. Last March, the company announced that it had achieved 140 million active users, up from 100 million last fall. Every day, Twitter hosts roughly 340 million new tweets.

To put that in perspective, it took Twitter three years, two months and one day to serve up 1 billion tweets; it now does that volume every three days. The New York Times’ David Carr likened Twitter to “a river of data.” Still others compare it to a violent gusher. Call it what you will: The tweets will flow with or without you.

This year’s presidential contest has already been pitched as the first truly digital election, despite the fact that politicos dubbed both the 2004 and 2008 elections as such. With each new election cycle comes proclamations about the latest technology’s impact. In 2004, it was the rise of the blogs. In 2008, CNN and many others asked whether that election would be won or lost on Facebook. This year, Twitter is home base to the political discourse, and journalists have set up shop to make sure they don’t miss a moment.

Take Ben Smith, the politically engaged editor in chief of the social site BuzzFeed. Smith averages 19.4 daily tweets and uses the information stream to stay in front of each day’s news cycle. For Smith and many like him, Twitter is more than a journalistic tool. “Twitter is not only driving the conversation, it is transforming the design of the modern newsroom,” he says.

But it isn’t just Smith and BuzzFeed that are doubling down on Twitter; newsrooms across the country have bent to the social network’s will. “It’s the best place right now to reach the central opinion makers and that conversation is really where you want to be,” says Smith.

For Ethan Klapper, social media editor, politics, for The Huffington Post, Twitter affords the 22-year-old a peculiar vantage point as he oversees the campaign trail far from the stump speeches and cross-country bus tours.

Klapper, like many young journalists, has been thrust into an elevated position due in part to his fluency monitoring the pulse of the chattering classes via the social medium.

“I often find myself getting home from work and opening up TweetDeck,” Klapper says. In fact, he rarely ventures far from the feed. “When it comes to the real-time news/debate element, Twitter reigns supreme,” the editor says.

While observers will disagree on the ultimate importance of the Rosen/Romney kerfuffle, everyone acknowledges it will be only one of many such instances for the Obama and Romney campaigns this season.

Republican digital strategist Vincent Harris, consultant for onetime Republican presidential hopefuls Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, figures that such skirmishes will escalate as the public demands them.

“People on Twitter like the drama of campaigns,” Harris says. “I think that’s why they’re on Twitter. I think they’d be bored if there wasn’t this constant chatter, and I think you’re going to continue seeing campaigns go to Twitter as a means to pick those fights.”

An increasingly hostile environment means more work for campaigns, always struggling to speed their reaction times and dominate the public opinion.

“In 1992, during the Clinton/Gore campaign, the idea of rapid response was responding within the news cycle,” Greenberger points out. “If you got hit at a morning news conference, you have to respond before the evening news. Rapid response is in real-time for the first time. So you have to adjust communications strategy accordingly. The velocity of this is new and it will take people time to adjust.”

With the general election all but officially begun, Zac Moffatt, digital director of the Romney campaign, doesn’t have time to adjust. Moffatt and his team are in unchartered digital territory, and Twitter is but one of their concerns.

Says Moffatt: “I definitely think Twitter has and will have a huge impact on this election, but it has to be recognized that, even with all the talk, even if you had the greatest Twitter strategy out there, I’m not sure you would win on that alone. In fact, I know you wouldn’t.”

Then, there’s the advertising angle. Like just about everything with Twitter, advertising defies convention. As Greenberger notes: “It is perhaps the first time in history that an ad platform is not a disrupted medium. If you think about what ads have been traditionally, they come before the content or in the middle of the content. On Twitter, the conversation is the content.”

Capitalizing on an audience that, while captive, is still very small (a recent study by Pew Research Center found that just 2 percent of Americans get their regular campaign news from the social network), Twitter has successfully leveraged the sale of Promoted Tweets, Accounts and Trends and advertisements via search.

For example, on Feb. 24 the Gingrich campaign attacked Obama for his inability to control gas prices, asserting that “real leadership can get gasoline back to $2.50/gallon” and employing the Twitter hashtag #250gas.

By March 8, #250gas was tweeted more than 35,000 times by 7,400 users, garnering 7 million impressions. The Obama campaign used Twitter’s auction-based model to bid on and advertise on Gingrich’s hashtag, which resulted in users who searched #250gas seeing an Obama ad. Political gamesmanship at its finest, and most technically savvy. We can expect further such tactics as the general election campaign proceeds.

Greenberger tells those involved with campaigns that they must “be committed to tweeting and working on the platform.” Moffatt agrees that a successful Twitter strategy requires serious commitment.

“With the message, you have to make it timely and relevant,” Moffatt says. “If we put out a tweet, it can become the largest driver to our site, and it has become a huge point for us to engage with people.” That level of engagement comes with a price: Promoted trends run roughly $120,000 per day.

That’s hardly a bargain, but the payoff can be enormous. Besides its impact on messaging, Twitter is also becoming an important fundraising tool. “Twitter was a top eight referrer to the Gingrich campaign in terms of where money was being raised,” Harris reports. “For some of my other clients, it is an even more powerful fundraising tool than Facebook.”

Still, as vital as Twitter has become for political campaigns, there is a dark side. For anyone wiling away his days and nights on TweetDeck, fatigue becomes a very real thing, for campaign staffers and journalists alike. In a world routinely grown weary of micro scoops, memes and never-ending political posturing, a social media slipup can mean lost jobs, and lost campaigns.

“There’s so much chance for burnout,” warns Harris. “I think that does scare campaigns. It is terrifying in some ways to think that anyone from my staff or anyone who has access to a campaign Twitter account could instantly tweet out to over 1 million people whatever they want to say. And once it’s out there, it’s out there.”

The issue raises real questions about the restructuring of campaigns in the social media age. Should younger staffers who are more fluent in the medium be handed the reins? Or should senior staffers who can be trusted to stay on message—and stay out of trouble—be given social media oversight?

Says Harris: “It could be 140 characters that nails the coffin, begging the question: Who do you trust?” Social strategy has become so sensitive, in fact, that the Obama campaign’s digital team refused Adweek’s requests for an interview.

At the end of the day, the position of the campaigns seems to be: Mistakes be damned—let the information flow. The question is, for how long? “Facebook has become part of the plumbing of the Internet, and I really think Twitter is right on the cusp of doing the same,” says Smith.

“Twitter has definitely embedded itself into the fabric of the Internet,” seconds Klapper.

While it is impossible to know whether Twitter will endure as a political force, what’s become clear is that 2012 is living up to the hype as “the Twitter election.”

For those ready to strap in and surrender to the roller coaster that is Twitter, the rewards can be great and the access invaluable.

But it can also quickly become a dangerous ride. Just ask Hilary Rosen.