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Obama, Romney Campaigns Embrace Twitter-Fueled News Cycle

Posted: 04/27/2012 1:51 pm Updated: 04/27/2012 1:51 pm

Obama Twitter

NEW YORK -- When Pierre Prosper, a foreign policy adviser to presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, accused President Barack Obama Thursday of abandoning a missile defense site in Czechoslovakia, a country that broke apart nearly two decades earlier, political reporters quickly tweeted the latest 2012 election gaffe, as Team Obama joined in to mock the other side.

"Hearing next @MittRomney foreign policy call will deal with threat posed by Grenada," tweeted Lis Smith, the director of rapid response for Obama's re-election campaign, along with the hashtag #backtothefuture." Ben LaBolt, press secretary for the Obama campaign, retweeted her swipe.

Another day, another flap.

The Czechoslovakia flub, which appears to to have been first tweeted by a ThinkProgress editor, is just the latest in a long string of micro-controversies that have come to epitomize coverage of the Twitter-fueled 2012 election, a media-soaked spectacle where political reporters jump on each gaffe, opposition research dump or morsel of manufactured outrage.

Over the past month, reporters have fixated en masse on what a Romney adviser said on CNN ("Etch A Sketch") and what a Democratic pundit said on CNN ("Rosengate"). Just last week, reporters covered senior members of the Obama and Romney campaigns tussling on Twitter over which candidate most mistreated man's best friend decades ago.

The increasing speed of the news cycle, driven by plugged-in reporters, operatives and political junkies on Twitter, hasn't been lost on some veterans of past campaign war rooms. Discussing how the election had literally gone to the dogs Sunday, "This Week" host George Stephanopoulos reminisced with panelist Donna Brazile about working in the Michael Dukakis campaign's rapid-response room during the 1988 election, a simpler time where "one of those old AP tickers" kept staffers up to speed. "That was how we got the news," he said.

But now, Stephanopoulos said, everyone's turned to Twitter, with 2012 being the first election "where you've got both campaigns completely engaged on this instant messaging."

DUELING PRESS TEAMS

Politics aside, the Obama and Romney campaigns' media strategies aren't too far apart, each reflecting the temperaments of their methodical candidates. Neither Obama, in 2008, nor Romney, in 2012, have ever showed much interest in casually talking at length, on the record, with the traveling press corps. Each avoids impromptu press availabilities or news conferences that might shake them off message. During the Republican primary, Romney could go more than a month without a press avail, while his chief rivals, former Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, routinely spoke off-the-cuff to traveling reporters.

Both the Obama and Romney campaigns are also disciplined and responsive to questions. At the same time, they often dismiss reporters' so-called "process" stories that focus more on the campaign's inner-workings and could possibly distract from the day's message.

And both campaigns swarm social media, while carefully keeping tabs on reporters' feeds. Campaign staffers regularly promote positive stories by retweeting them and push back at their rivals or reporters on negative ones, gunning for every inch of every news cycle.

LaBolt told The Huffington Post that "Twitter has made every reporter a wire reporter and the 24-hour news cycle has been truncated into news cycles that last as long as an hour." Looking ahead to November, LaBolt said that his press team "will be operating on all cylinders fully recognizing the changed media environment."

LOUDER THAN ANYONE ELSE

The Romney campaign closely monitored Twitter throughout the primary, according to reporters who have covered the campaign and have gotten email responses to tweets from senior-level staffers.

It's not surprising Romney aides would want to keep a watchful eye, considering how ubiquitous tweeting has become for reporters on the trail. During a recent trip on the Romney press bus, reporters not only tweeted en route but had conversations about what other reporters, not physically on the bus, were tweeting. At events, nearly every reporter has TweetDeck or Twitter open to cover speeches and town halls in real-time, with tweeted observations, knee-jerk analysis and verbatim stump speech lines immediately shot into the media bloodstream.

However, Gail Gitcho, communications director for the Romney campaign, told The Huffington Post that her team has been "more concerned with what campaigns are doing on Twitter" than it has been with reporters. Last month, her team took a close look at the Twitter-driven media ecosystem and traced how one potentially negative micro-story about Romney bubbled to the surface on Twitter with the help of an Obama staffer, according to an internal campaign study.

Here's what they found.

On March 28, Romney held a 35-minute tele-town hall pegged to the Wisconsin primary in which he recalled a "humorous" story about how his father George Romney, then the president of American Motors, closed a factory in Michigan and moved production to Wisconsin. Romney's political advisers hoped Michigan residents would overlook their candidate’s gaffe, but a few reminders popped up unexpectedly.

The Romney campaign charted how several campaign embeds -- who follow Romney day in and day out for the TV networks -- and a couple of political reporters initially neglected to note the "humorous" line when they were live-tweeting the call. An early ABC News report, posted online around 1:30 p.m., also didn't mention the anecdote, which critics would later use to peg Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy finding humor in people losing their jobs.

But roughly 90 minutes later, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel published a story online about the call that quoted Romney talking about the "humorous" factory anecdote. It originally appeared halfway through the Journal-Sentinel piece and didn't make the headline. (The piece appears to have been updated to emphasize the "humorous" flap.) About an hour after that, according to the Romney campaign's report, the Obama campaign's Smith tweeted a link to the Journal-Sentinel story, noting that Romney has recounted a "'humorous' story of his dad closing down a factory in MI."

Shortly thereafter, several liberal organizations and prominent Democrats jumped into the fray. Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas tweeted a link to the same story while writing, "Romney tells HILARIOUS story about laying off people, naturally." Smith tweeted the link again at 4:34, writing, "Things @MittRomney likes: being able to fire ppl. Things he finds 'humorous': his dad closing down a factory."

Eight minutes later, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith tweeted the Journal-Sentinel link and wrote that "Romney actual volunteered a 'humorous' story about shutting down a factory today." Other journalists would tweet the same line and a number of news outlets -- such as BuzzFeed, Talking Points Memo, The New York Times and The Huffington Post -- soon posted stories online about the "humorous" anecdote and DNC pushback. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow addressed it on air a few hours later.

While the Romney campaign may have been put on the defensive during that episode, Gitcho believes Romney's team can also use social media to play offense.

"Twitter's an excellent tool to get our message out, and develop a strong Twitter echo chamber so we can be just as loud or louder than anyone else," Gitcho said.

With "Rosengate," the Romney campaign showed it is just as eager to jump on an errant or impolitic comment. Hilary Rosen, a Democratic pundit (and former HuffPost editor) who's not a paid Obama staffer, said during a CNN appearance that Ann Romney shouldn't advise her husband on economic issues because she "never worked a day in her life." Soon after, Gitcho labeled Rosen an Obama adviser on Twitter and said she just "attack[ed] Ann Romney, an MS & breast cancer survivor & mom of 5, for 'never working a day in her life."

Campaign staffers on the attack can create a Twitter frenzy, but the Rosen flap likely wouldn't have exploded if the Romney campaign hadn't fired things up further. But later that night, Ann Romney joined Twitter herself, and responded: "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work." With that, Rosengate took over the political news cycle.

THE INSIDE GAME

Four days after Rosen's comment, MSNBC's "Morning Joe" crew was still talking about it, with NBC News director Chuck Todd suggesting that the micro-controversy was an "example of what the next couple of months are going to look like."

"I think you are going to have an attempt by both campaigns to try to do these manufactured controversies," Todd said, "to take something and try to drive it into the mainstream."

While such flaps instantly bounce around the political media echo chamber, some recent studies suggest the public -- and therefore voters -- isn't nearly as engaged as reporters and political operatives.

In February, the Pew Research Center found that just two percent of those polled were closely following the election through Twitter, despite the fact that just about every political reporter and campaign staffer is glued to the social media platform all day. Following the Etch A Sketch fracas, when Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said the campaign would hit the "reset button" and "start all over again" when transitioning from the primary battle to the general election, Pew discovered in a March study that 55 percent of the public hadn't heard about the gaffe.

CNN analyst Alex Castellanos, who has worked as a media strategist for several Republican campaigns, including Romney's 2008 presidential race, warned against the campaigns getting too wrapped up in winning each micro-news cycle.

"This is the reduction of politics to it's most inside level," Castellanos said in an email to The Huffington Post. "It's busy work for insiders, one set of insiders sparring with another, when the voters are on the outside."

"One twit warring with another twit makes very little difference," he added, "except to the twits."

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