As measured in social media by the moment, the election campaign for Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been an utter disaster. Luckily for him, however, moments don’t last as long as they used to.
From “corporations are people” to insulting the Brits on the eve of the Olympics to prematurely chastising the President for sympathizing with Egyptian protesters, Romney’s gaffes have made Joe Biden seem positively laconic. At his own convention, he was upstaged by a piece of furniture. And then, yesterday, came the YouTube video, in which Romney was secretly filmed at a private fundraising dinner saying that he wasn’t going to waste time wooing the 47 percent of the country he thinks are inveterate moochers and, worse, Obama voters.
The #47percent video shook the political Twittersphere so hard that it created a new fault line. As of 4pm today, the hashtag and the term “47%” combined had been mentioned 348,000 times, according to Twitter’s own data. I’d hazard a guess that not many of those mentions were complimentary.
That’s terrible news for Romney’s campaign, no matter how the Republicans are now trying to spin it. To a large extent, what happens on Twitter drives the news agenda, primarily because it is such a novel tool for instantly measuring public sentiment. Why wait for the polls to roll in?
It also continues to undermine Romney’s attempts to connect with voters on a human level. Social media platforms provide an opportunity for candidates to engage with voters and emphasize personality and character. Obama’s campaign has shown this through its effective use of Tumblr, the President’s surprise Reddit appearance, and the quick-fire “This seat is taken” photo response to Clint Eastwood’s infamous convention speech.
Romney hasn’t been able to muster up much more than some positive chit-chat on Facebook and a flurry of Tweets during his address to the convention. That activity hasn’t been enough to counter his opponents’ claims that he has an authenticity problem. He has also been pitching himself as “Mr Fix It” rather than, as Sarah Palin might put it, “Mr Hope-and-Changey”, which plays less well to gee-whiz reactions that are the domain of Twitter and Facebook. Talk of tax cuts isn’t social-media sexy. He’d be better off posting a video of himself doing the “Gangnam Style” dance at a Dodgers game.
So, yeah, to the extent that this is the Twitter election, Romney is getting a toweling. To the extent that Twitter hyper-accelerates the news cycle, however, Romney still has a chance.
This afternoon, I met with Patrick Ruffini, who was digital director of George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign and now runs a digital consultancy focused on politics. He was frank about Romney’s social media challenges but also said he didn’t believe the “47%” affair had killed the Republican’s chances.
Because of Twitter, the media narratives are playing out much faster than in any previous campaign, Ruffini said. “You actually have the shaping of conventional wisdom going on in real time, which is just extraordinary.”
That also means that conventional wisdom has a shorter shelf life – or, as Ruffini puts it, “It’s going to be yesterday’s news faster.” Take Todd Akins’ comment about “legitimate rape“, for instance. By the way that controversy lit up Ruffini’s Twitter stream, he knew immediately it would be a huge story. At the time, there was huge pressure for Akin to step down, including from many senior Republicans. But now? It’s not clear that Akin’s going to lose. And Akin’s gaffe was “exponentially worse” than Romney’s “47%” comments, Ruffini reckons.
Ruffini’s theory is supported by Nate Silver, the New York Times’ poll guru and author of the FiveThirtyEight blog, who Tweeted yesterday that “90 percent of ‘game-changing’ gaffes are less important in retrospect than they seem in the moment.”
How likely is that to be true for this election and the #47percent furore? Well, let’s look at the big political moments on Twitter so far:
- President Obama says “you didn’t build that“: 67 days ago
- Romney insults the Brits on the eve of the Olympics: 54 days ago
- Clint Eastwood jawbones with an empty chair: 19 days ago
- Romney slams Obama for sympathizing with Egyptian protesters: 7 days ago
Most of that already sounds like old news, doesn’t it?
In the space of a week, the major political story has gone from Romney committing a crime of foreign policy to Romney blithely dismissing almost half of the voting population. In a few days’ time, there will surely be another huge story. By then, Republicans will have spun the “47%” moment to a standstill and everyone will have calmed down, after which Twitter will find new ways to make the candidates look stupid.
There are more than 1,170 hours left until Election Day – plenty of time for Twitter to turn the media narrative on its head a few more times.