TOPICS > Politics

Examining the Romney Campaign’s ‘Active, Snarky’ Use of Twitter

February 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Social media have had a big impact on politics this election season, influencing which issues reach the forefront and affecting how campaigns act and react. A regular new NewsHour segment will track political issues as they play out online, featuring journalists Lauren Ashburn and Howard Kurtz of the new website, Daily Download.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s become ever clearer that social networking is having a profound impact on how politics today works, how campaigns act and react, how journalists get and transmit information, how money is raised, how issues are fought over, and much more.

Tonight, we begin a new feature that will track the campaign and political issues as they play out in social media and on the Web.

For that, we will be joined regularly by two journalists from the new website Daily Download. Lauren Ashburn is the site’s editor in chief and formerly with USA Today Live and Gannett Broadcasting. Howard Kurtz is Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief and host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

And welcome to the NewsHour.


HOWARD KURTZ, Newsweek/CNN: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, every time we meet here around the table, we’re going to talk about a particular campaign or issue, starting tonight with Mitt Romney, largely, Lauren, because he’s so active in social media, right?

LAUREN ASHBURN: He is so active, especially in Twitter. He’s taken to it like a duck takes to water.

There are so many people on his staff that are responsible for sending out messages that millions of people see. And those messages can be a bit disparaging at times.

HOWARD KURTZ: Snarky, perhaps.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Even snarky is the word that we have been bantering about.

JEFFREY BROWN: So it’s the underside of the campaign in some ways.


It gives the campaign the ability to do things that they might not do on television or in print. They can get jabs in here and say things that are a little bit more cutting or dicey.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this is moment by moment. This is constantly happening for an audience of — who are they trying to reach and how?

HOWARD KURTZ: Well, I was going say it was hour-by-hour warfare, but that would be way too slow for the hyperspeed world of Twitter.

They’re trying to reach political junkies, but they’re also trying to reach journalists, most of whom are on Twitter and are using it as a source of intelligence. And so the campaigns wants the journalists to pick up these messages.

So, for example, one of the weapons in the war is called the hashtag, like the pound sign on your phone. And it’s a way for users to search for topics or trends or even people. So the Romney campaign, when the former House speaker was surging in the polls, put up about this about Newt Gingrich.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, let’s take a look.

HOWARD KURTZ:.@Newt Gingrich has compared himself to Moses, Abe Lincoln and Pericles. Who knewt?

And then we have #GrandioseNewt, a theme that the Romney campaign very much wanted to go viral, giving the idea that the former speaker has a bit of a swelled head.

JEFFREY BROWN: Attacking each other through this minute-by-minute . . .

LAUREN ASHBURN: And it’s a way that they can also be quite clever.

Let’s take a look at another example of how this has happened. So, Eric Fehrnstrom works for, is one of the top advisers for Mitt Romney — David Axelrod, one of the top advisers for Barack Obama. They got into a little bit of Twitter war here. And it had been going on for some time.

But here’s an example. David Axelrod says, “Dude, none of my business, but shouldn’t you be in debate prep, instead of trying to explain yourself to me?

And, so, Fehrnstrom shoots back, “Ha-ha. Believe it or not, the economy an issue where we don’t prep Mitt. He preps us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we should note, I suppose, the formal language, “dude,” right?



JEFFREY BROWN: And this the way they talk to each other in Twitter world.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Jump into the 21st century.

HOWARD KURTZ: It can get a little bit juvenile.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it’s also — for those who don’t use Twitter, this is a conversation they’re having, but a lot of people are watching. Right?

HOWARD KURTZ: It’s a private, but very public conversation. Anybody can watch. Anybody can follow the campaigns. Certainly, journalists watch.

And sometimes the — they can be quite clever in these jabs. And they always don’t always use a sledgehammer on Twitter. Remember, you only have 140 characters for each message. So Axelrod of the Obama campaign hearkens back to a story that has dogged Mitt Romney — excuse me — for 30 years now . . .


LAUREN ASHBURN: Dogged. You’re so bad.

HOWARD KURTZ: . . . about the family dog, when the family went on vacation, drove to Canada from Massachusetts, and put the Irish setter in a crate on the roof.

And so Axelrod tweets a picture. And the caption is simply, “How loving owners transport their dogs.”

LAUREN ASHBURN: There it is.

HOWARD KURTZ: Now, I’m not saying that President Obama decided to pose with Bo for orchestrated reasons, but it kind of got the point about this old Romney story without having to mention it in any way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. Say no more, right, because the rest is out in the air, so that’s all they need to say.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Right. A lot of this is snide, I think.

And when you think of inside the Beltway, I often think of sort of jabs like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: But does it have – I mean one thing I’m interested in, you talk about trying to reach reporters, right? So another thing they use is they use Twitter to push back on stories that they read.

HOWARD KURTZ: Twitter really functions as an early warning system for these campaigns, and so that if you tweet something that they don’t like — and the Romney campaign is pretty aggressive about this, and the Obama White House as well — you will get a sizzling email in your inbox challenging the premise of what you’re sending out there.

LAUREN ASHBURN: And even if you retweet, which means that you send someone else’s tweet and they don’t like that retweet, they will come right at you and say, Why did you do this? What’s happening?

HOWARD KURTZ: And one of the reasons that the campaigns do this, Lauren, is to try to head off or knock down or at least defuse an emerging trend about their candidate before it’s on the air, before it hits the newspapers by kind of throwing a brushback pitch, to use a baseball . . .

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so we’re using words like snide, cute, snarky, but there’s a serious element to this. Right? This has become a real part of the way you campaign.

LAUREN ASHBURN: This is warfare.

This is political warfare at its finest. You get the opportunity here to show political reporters exactly what you’re made of, exactly how on top of the issues you are. It is almost, I would say — and you might disagree — as important as debating, at least when it comes to reaching political reporters who are shaping the message of the campaign.

HOWARD KURTZ: And, finally, you don’t have to wait to be invited on a television interview. You can go directly to all the people who — the millions of people who read Twitter, and you can reach them without a filter.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, something we will keep watching over time.

Howard Kurtz, Lauren Ashburn of the Daily Download, thanks so much.

HOWARD KURTZ: Thank you.