TOPICS > Politics

Twitter #Hashtags a #DoubleEdgedSword for #Obama, #Romney Campaigns

May 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As part of an ongoing series on how candidates and surrogates use social media this election season, Ray Suarez and journalists Lauren Ashburn and Howard Kurtz of discuss the role of Twitter and hashtags to spread or co-opt campaign messages from President Obama and Mitt Romney.

RAY SUAREZ: And we turn to our regular look at the campaign as it plays out in social media and on the Web.

For that, we’re joined by two journalists from the Web site 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, Lauren, this week, word comes from the Obama campaign that while they are making heavy ad buys, even though the president had no primaries, they’re buying much more on the Web than on television. Is this new territory?


Take a look at the numbers. They’re really impressive. For March, just for March, the Obama campaign spent $6.7 million online. Their last TV ad buy was $1.4 million and their last print ad buy, big ad buy, was $700,000.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this a creature of it being early the season or is this pointing us toward a new way of talking to voters?

HOWARD KURTZ, Newsweek/CNN: Well, it is early. By the time we get to November, both campaigns will have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the traditional broadcast and cable television.

But what’s so much more efficient, Ray, about online advertising is you can target people. You don’t have to buy the whole state of Missouri, the whole state of Florida. You can target certain types of people who read certain magazines who have certain political views. And that’s very efficient for political operatives.

LAUREN ASHBURN: And they’re using it — they’re using it for text messaging. They’re targeting Google ad searches. They’re using it for the ads that you see in front of videos for Facebook ads. So it’s not as if just they’re putting one ad in one place. They’re putting it everywhere.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Twitter is getting a lot of action this campaign season. It was around in 2008, but didn’t have the number of users. It wasn’t the fully fleshed-out service, as it is today.

What are the campaigns doing differently this time?

HOWARD KURTZ: Well, Twitter in this campaign has become a forum for political sniping, but now also a forum for arguing about policy disputes and of course making them a way of political sniping.

So what the campaigns do is they use what’s called hashtags, which is a pound sign and a catchy word or phrase that they hope will catch on, and that you can search online and you can see their attacks or their defenses on these policy disputes, as in — the Obama campaign recently did this.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Yes, here’s an example.

Barack Obama’s campaign put together a hashtag, which you can see right here, #dontdoublemyrate. He went to do a speech, and in the speech, two students at UNC, he said, I’m putting out a hashtag on Twitter. It says #dontdoublemyrate. Spread the word. And so it was his way of getting engagement among a younger audience.

HOWARD KURTZ: It’s of course a reference to the student loan rate which will double if Congress doesn’t act, the Obama administration pushing for legislation to keep the lower rate, which of course is popular among younger people and maybe some of their parents.

So this spread as a Twitter hashing or slogan. The Romney campaign doing this as well. For example, after Obama — the president appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show and of course the White House Correspondents Dinner, telling a lot of jokes, the Romney folks put out the hashtag #notfunny, as in, while Barack Obama cracks jokes, the youth unemployment rate is double the national rate, not funny.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Lauren, Twitter, as I understand it, and this world of hashtags, it is kind of a free-for-all. You can’t lock one down and make it your own. So can they be used by the other side in ways that the campaign’s original use never intended?


Got an email on Monday. Here’s another one, for example, from the RNC. The RNC sent out a press release. And the Obama administration had used the hashtag #forward. They had a done video it sort of forward into the future.

HOWARD KURTZ: The new slogan, the president’s new slogan.

LAUREN ASHBURN: It’s their new slogan.

Well, the Republican National Convention said, okay, we are going forward to $1.9 trillion in higher taxes. We are going forward to $491 billion in higher taxes for Obamacare. And we are going forward to deficits over $1 trillion.

HOWARD KURTZ: So you can’t patent this. You can’t control it. Somebody can take it, flip it, kind of a political jujitsu, and use it satirically against the message that you intended.

RAY SUAREZ: So if you look for hashtag #forward, you will get a bunch of Republican and Democratic messages under that rubric, right?

LAUREN ASHBURN: That’s correct.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, are any of these working? In the drive to make them sticky, the kinds of things that stay with people, are there any of these hashtag slogans that have caught on, that are doing well?

LAUREN ASHBURN: Well, take a look at one — another one that we have for you.

Sen. Barbara Boxer created this hashtag called #waronwomen. And this is one that did take off. War on women, she says: “Is it an imaginary #waronwomen when the House GOP holds a panel on women’s health and no women are invited to testify?”

Or another one that she sent out into the Twittersphere: “Is it an imaginary #waronwomen when GOP nearly shuts down the federal government over efforts to defund family planning?”

HOWARD KURTZ: Of course. . .

LAUREN ASHBURN: And this took on a life of its own.

HOWARD KURTZ: And Republicans of course dismiss this as an overheated Democratic talking point, but Twitter has become a way to spread this, especially if you have got a catchy phrase, not funny, war on women, and to get people repeating it, get people talking about it, kind of inject it into the media bloodstream.

RAY SUAREZ: And in this particular case, you bring up the Barbara Boxer page, and who’s the first poster there?

LAUREN ASHBURN: Michelle Malkin.

RAY SUAREZ: Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin, who makes fun of that notion that the — that there is a war on women coming from the Republican side.

Any way to count traffic on Twitter? Do we know whether this is becoming a venue for campaign arguments in a much more fleshed-out way than it has in the past?

HOWARD KURTZ: There are 24 million active users* on Twitter right now. And you can instantly see, usually within a news cycle or even the blink of an eye, whether or not one of these takes off, because they become a trending topic.

These the hashtags or subject lines that most people are using or arguing about. And that’s a way also to — it starts on Twitter, and the whole idea, if you are a political operative on either side, is that this spreads out, that it gets picked up on talk radio, that it gets picked up on cable television arguments, and. . .

LAUREN ASHBURN: That people like us talk about it.

HOWARD KURTZ: People like us talk about it — as a way of trying to shape the debate in your favor and stick it to your opponent.

RAY SUAREZ: Howard Kurtz, Lauren Ashburn, good to talk to you both.

HOWARD KURTZ: Same here.