Mitt Romney learned a hard lesson during the Iowa GOP Candidates Debate on December 10, 2011. We’ve always known that journalists are looking for quotes and sound bites every time major candidates take the stage. Today, social media acts to not only amplify the sound bites, but also to give journalists a way to gauge public sentiment about what is being said.
Romney tried to make a bet with Rick Perry:
Immediately, Twitter and other social networks started buzzing about it. The initial response by analysts was mild during the break that immediately followed the statement, but shortly after they started noticing the response from social media. The Twitter hashtag #What10kbuys started getting attached to a lot of the #IowaDebate and #GOPDebate posts, eventually passing them on the trending Tweets list.
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was the first to truly recognize the value and potential pitfalls of using social media. At the time it was cutting edge but now it’s a pea compared to the juggernaut that his and other campaigns are becoming. Every major campaign seems to understand the importance of political social media. Few are using it well as a true amplification tool.
The true key to getting the messages out there has very little with what a candidate’s campaign is saying through social media. It’s all about what other people are saying about the campaign and the candidate. Obama knows this. For the most part, Ron Paul’s campaign knows this and is working social media very well at that level. Newt Gingrich, Romney, and the other GOP candidates seem to be missing the message.
Social media has added the “public response” element. Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit have a power to spread messages to the masses, but their influence is still tiny compared to television. Today, a candidate could not rely on social media lone to run their campaign. They’d be missed by the majority of the voting population (no matter how big people think social media is).
No, the real power is in how traditional media scrutinizes social media responses. They have given social media a status of being the heartbeat of public sentiment. Most people won’t go to Twitter to check out the #What10kBuys hashtag, but many will have heard about it at some point in post-debate coverage. Social media’s effect on mainstream media strengthens its influence on the voters because it acts as thermometer checking the temperature of the people’s opinions.
Even Obama’s campaign doesn’t seem to grasp this completely, yet.
How Twitter Affected Romney’s Campaign
Is he done? No. Thankfully for Romney supporters, the voting population has a short memory when it comes to these things and gaffes are simply news of the day rather than centerpieces of political attack campaigns such as Bill Clinton’s “read my lips” campaign against George H.W. Bush.
It does, however, point the campaign in a different direction and has forced them to change their strategy towards Iowa. In a world without Twitter or social media in general, the gaffe would have received a minor mention on news shows the next morning and may have been forgetting by the evening news. Twitter’s response gave it a boost of “buzz credibility” that mainstream media has picked up on, prolonging the effect for an extra day or two. This might seem like something minor, but Romney’s campaign must address it now indirectly. They have to point everyone’s attention in a different direction. It’s energy that should be spent elsewhere, but thanks to Twitter, it requires attention.
What Politicians Must Learn
It isn’t just Twitter and it isn’t just Romney. Look at the video responses on YouTube to what is being called “Rick Perry’s Anti-Gay Ad.” Before social media, the talk around the water cooler would have been minimal. Those who saw it on television would have had their personal opinions and may have shared them with friends and family, but social media has turned the ad into an anti-Perry rallying point.
Candidates must give the people positive, powerful messages to latch onto through their own personal broadcasting tools via social media. Herman Cain did it with his 9-9-9 plan. Had he not had skeletons in his closet, he would likely be the GOP candidate to beat right now because he created a message that resonated. It sounded good to many. Even those who didn’t like it were still broadcasting it through social media in ways that are different than what is happening with Romney and Perry.
Find a message. It has to be more than a slogan. It has to be tangible. It has to elicit a response. Social media’s real power over the elections will come in exposing sentiment to mainstream media. Voters are on Facebook and Twitter, but they’re still mostly on television. That’s where the power truly is. Using social media to sway what mainstream media reports is the difference between living by social media and dying by social media.