MARGARET WARNER: Among the many Americans in London for the Games is presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. He’s at the start of a three-nation trip intended to burnish his foreign policy credentials.
But Romney, who ran the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, irked his British hosts by appearing to question their ability to stage the Games.
His stumble came in an interview in London yesterday. NBC’s Brian Williams asked whether, to Romney’s experienced eye, the British appeared ready to host the Games.
MITT ROMNEY (R): You know, it’s hard to know just how well it will turn out. There are a few things that were disconcerting, the stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials. That obviously is not something which is encouraging.
MARGARET WARNER: Today, in a visit to Olympic Park, Prime Minister David Cameron issued a bit of a rebuke.
BRITISH PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. I mean, of course, it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere. This is a busy, bustling city, so, inevitably, you are going to have challenges.
MARGARET WARNER: And later, after meeting at 10 Downing Street with Cameron, Romney took pains to backtrack.
MITT ROMNEY: I am very delighted with the prospects of a highly successful Olympic Games. What I have seen shows imagination and forethought and a lot of organization, and expect the Games to be highly successful.
MARGARET WARNER: For a look at how this is playing out in the social media world, we’re joined by two journalists from the website Daily Download.
Lauren Ashburn is the site’s editor in chief, and Howard Kurtz is Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief and host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”
So, Lauren, this certainly has been heavily covered in newspapers and in the wires. How is it playing out in the social media realm?
LAUREN ASHBURN, Daily Download: It’s not playing out very well. I think the…
MARGARET WARNER: You mean for Romney?
LAUREN ASHBURN: Yes, for Romney.
I think that people feel that he doesn’t get it, like showing up to a dinner party and criticizing the host’s table even before he sits down. And I believe that, from reading this on Twitter and Facebook and blogs, that it hasn’t done him any favors.
HOWARD KURTZ, CNN: I’d say this is playing as a gold medal gaffe, the first Olympics event.
One person tweeted, ‘Fulfilling a vow not to insult Obama overseas, Romney insults P.M. David Cameron instead.”
I’m not so sure it was a gaffe. I think Romney wanted to express concern about security in a deliberate message, perhaps to remind people that a decade ago, when he ran the Salt Lake City Olympics, there were no security problems.
MARGARET WARNER: But Prime Minister Cameron had a quick rejoinder to that.
LAUREN ASHBURN: He did.
HOWARD KURTZ: Saying, if you want to hold the Games in the middle of nowhere, be my guest. This is London.
MARGARET WARNER: So, has the Obama campaign tried to make hay out of this?
LAUREN ASHBURN: They have online. They have been out there talking about this and other comments that he’s made about Anglo-Saxon, which we can talk about.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, explain that.
HOWARD KURTZ: Yes. In fairness, it wasn’t Romney who said, as quoted by the British paper The Telegraph that Obama didn’t understand the Anglo-Saxon heritage shared between the United States and the United Kingdom. It was two unnamed Romney advisers quoted by the paper.
Romney has pushed back against that, saying he doesn’t know who these people are. So it’s a classic British press jumping on unnamed sources kind of story.
LAUREN ASHBURN: Right, but this was also much more negative in tone in the way it was covered and perceived. They said that Romney…
MARGARET WARNER: This comment about Anglo-Saxon.
LAUREN ASHBURN: This comment about Anglo-Saxon, yes. They said that he’s like Sarah Palin in a suit without lipstick and he can’t talk about Mormonism, his job as a governor, or Bain. All he has to do is talk about the fact that he’s white.
HOWARD KURTZ: There’s a racial undertone to it, but, again, we don’t how he said it or how close they are or not to the Romney campaign.
MARGARET WARNER: Is it fair to say that this is the kind of little false step that in the old media era would be worth a cycle in the news, but because of the social media environment, it’s just relentless?
LAUREN ASHBURN: It is.
If you look at a chart of the Anglo-Saxon term and how it played out on Twitter over a period of 24 hours, you can see nothing from the searching for the term Anglo-Saxon, to this, to a little bit down, to another big zoom.
HOWARD KURTZ: Zoom. It gives it an extra half-life.
MARGARET WARNER: And how has the Romney campaign responded to all the criticism on all of this?
HOWARD KURTZ: Well, Romney himself has tried to distance himself and his campaign from the blind quotes that appeared in The Telegraph.
MARGARET WARNER: And how about the comments about Britain?
HOWARD KURTZ: He has backed off a little bit, walking it back, as we say in politics, trying to soften that language.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Lauren, separately in the Twitter world, there’s been this new little, I don’t know, controversy I guess about whether the Romney campaign has been buying Twitter followers. What’s that all about?
LAUREN ASHBURN: So, normally, with Twitter, what you do is, you sign up for Twitter and then people follow you.
The charge is that Romney and Romney’s folks have actually gone to a Twitter agency, paid money and bought people to follow him. So, take a look here at our graphic that we have got together here. These are Twitter followers that Romney had on July 20. By July 23 in the morning, he had 819,000 followers. So he started at 673,000 and jumped in really a period of a day-and-a-half to 819,000.
HOWARD KURTZ: Margaret, let me just jump in to say I talked to Romney’s digital guru, Zac Moffatt, who flatly denies that the campaign had any involvement in trying to buy followers.
But he says anyone can buy followers and send them to someone else. There are companies that do this for a fee, where they will vacuum up often fake accounts with funny names and use it to pad your total, and suddenly it looks like you’re real popular.
MARGARET WARNER: So even the fact that Obama has far more followers than Romney, for all we know, some of those are bought?
LAUREN ASHBURN: Yes, of course. They could be bought.
But the real thing about Twitter to keep in mind is that what’s important is engagement. So the way that they can gain votes and popularity is by average Americans interacting with the president, sending him notes or his campaign staff notes.
They send them back. Those are what they call engaged followers. If you buy followers, it doesn’t really get you anything, except the perception that you’re doing well.
HOWARD KURTZ: Interesting, because the Romney campaign also makes this point about the numbers. For example, on Facebook, the president has 27 million likes. Romney has 2.7 million. They claim that their followers are much more engaged, their fans…
MARGARET WARNER: Right. And the same with Twitter. He has a lot more, but I guess my question is, Lauren, look at this chart. He’s got 17 million. Mitt Romney…
HOWARD KURTZ: But he’s not in first place in Twitter land.
MARGARET WARNER: No, he’s not in first place.
And what’s more, does it really matter?
LAUREN ASHBURN: That’s always the age-old question that people ask about Twitter. Look at this chart.
HOWARD KURTZ: How many did Lady Gaga have?
LAUREN ASHBURN: Right. And that’s what I was going to say. Lady Gaga has 27.4 million followers, the president 17 million, Mitt Romney 819,000 after the alleged buying.
HOWARD KURTZ: And then…
LAUREN ASHBURN: And then we looked up — we wanted to see what an average person, maybe an average politician would have. We looked up the mayor of Green Bay, Wis., Jim Schmitt. He has 579.
MARGARET WARNER: He probably didn’t buy those.
LAUREN ASHBURN: No. I think those were earned.
HOWARD KURTZ: It may not matter all that much, except in terms of amplifying the message of the campaigns.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Howie and Lauren, thank you both.
HOWARD KURTZ: Thank you.
LAUREN ASHBURN: Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: And on our website, watch a 2002 NewsHour interview with Romney on Olympic security shortly before that year’s Winter Games in Salt Lake City.