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The Hashtag Campaign

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President Barack Obama unveiled his hashtag campaign to students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Tuesday.
President Barack Obama unveiled his hashtag campaign to students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON -- President Obama won late-night TV style points this week for slow-jamming his way through a campaign update on Jimmy Fallon's show. But he made a less-noticed but perhaps more noteworthy bid for youth support the day before.

Speaking at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Tuesday, he repeatedly mentioned a hashtag that he wanted college kids to use to express opposition to a hike in interest on federal student loans.

"Everyone who is watching or following online -- call your member of Congress," he said. "Email them. Write on your Facebook page. Tweet them. We've got the hashtag. Here is the hashtag for you to tweet them: #dontdoublemyrate. All right? I'm going to repeat that. The hashtag is #dontdoublemyrate. You tweet! Everybody say it, just so everybody remembers it!

"Don't double my rate!" the crowd responded. Obama repeated the Twitter call-and-response that day at the University of Colorado and the University of Iowa. As he made his pitch at the three large campuses, the hashtag #dontdoublemyrate rocket-trended nationwide on Twitter. Point made: Republican congressional leaders, who already were scrambling to get ahead of this curve of student public opinion, quickly made it clear that they, too, wanted to hold the line on student loan interest rates.

Every presidential election takes place on a new and different battlefield of media innovation. The campaign that best pushes the limits of what is possible and effective on that battlefield usually wins. Think JFK and live broadcast TV, Ronald Reagan and the cinematic photo op, Bill Clinton and town-hall cable; Barack Obama and Facebook.

With all due respect to slow jammin', it's too slow to define the campaign. Rather, it is the instantaneous micro-to-global combat of Twitter that is setting the pace (insanely fast) and practice (cutthroat attack) of 2012.

The president had mentioned a hashtag once before, in February, as he lobbied for an extension of the payroll tax cut. But, according to a White House official, the college tour on Tuesday was the "the first time he's pushed it strongly," referring to Twitter.

In Obama's case, invoking Twitterspeak was largely a stylistic gesture; it had little or no organizational benefit for his re-election campaign.

The tour was ostensibly an official event, not a campaign stop. Perhaps that is one reason why the White House said that there were limits to what could be done with the resulting list of Twitter handles. "This wasn't about creating a list of people," said the White House aide, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about organizational strategy. "Rather, it is a way for people to speak out and connect with others about this issue," he said.

"When the hashtag gets really popular it's a great way to engage new audiences who might not be following this closely," the official added. "We can follow up, which we sometimes do. It's probably safe to assume that more people follow the @whitehouse account in the course of something like this, so they would get updates after that. But it's not like adding to an email list."

Obama won Twitter-style points, but in fact it was the Romney campaign that earlier this month used Twitter to best effect organization-wise.

The now-famous opening sequence began with an attack on Ann Romney by Democratic activist and lobbyist Hilary Rosen. She said on CNN that Mrs. Romney had no business advising her husband about economic realities because she had "never worked a day in her life." The quote went viral on Twitter instantly. Within about 45 minuters of that wave, the Romney camp had consulted with Mrs. Romney, worked out a reply Tweet about how raising five boys was real work and tweeted it to the world.

The Romney campaign redirected that wave of interest to Ann Romney's Facebook page, where within 24 hours 30,000 likes mushroomed to more than 200,000, according to Zac Moffett of the Rommey campaign. The response was so strong that the campaign decided to start another Facebook page, this one called Moms for Mitt.

To augment traffic on Moms for Mitt, the campaign bought search ads on Google, keyed to search terms such as Hilary Rosen and Ann Romney.

The result is a Moms for Mitt Facebook page with more than 80,000 likes -- a roster that can be a real-world and Net-based organizing tool from now through Election Day. "Campaigns are risk averse in many ways," Moffett said. "But one way in which they take risks and push the envelope is technology. The Moms for Mitt Page is a perfect example of using new technology -- Twitter, Facebook and Google -- to do new things."

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