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The real story about how the Obama and Romney campaigns used Twitter

Although social media is often thought about in terms of citizens, interviews with staffers on both campaigns reveal that these campaigns used Twitter primarily to influence the journalists using the platform, both in terms of what they were tweeting about and what they produced for other mediums. As Teddy Goff, the digital director of Obama 2012, told me, Twitter was about journalists “filling up at the bar or on the campaign bus.”

Staffers on both campaigns planned their tweets around major political events — a common practice in the commercial world. For example, about a month before the first debate, Romney’s digital team performed weekly dry runs of everything they would do on digital platforms when the two candidates squared off. The digital team even put together a 90-page document that had all of the research they were ready to make public and created over more than 200 infographics.

Staffers on both campaigns said that journalists used Twitter as a proxy for public opinion to assess such things as the candidates’ debate performances. This then spilled over into subsequent coverage across many mediums.

For this reason, both campaigns worked to create a “climate of opinion” on Twitter that was favorable to their candidate. Zac Moffatt, Romney’s digital director, cited the campaign’s work amplifying the unfavorable sentiment about Obama’s first debate performance by re-tweeting critical reactions from pundits, journalists and supporters in real time, which he argues made it difficult for the president’s campaign team to spin a favorable narrative.

Goff said that journalists declared a winner 40 minutes into the first debate just by looking at Twitter sentiment, and so his team approached the second debate with a much more well-defined plan: to “make sure that no matter what was going on, frankly whether or not the president did his job, you know, there would be very loud voices talking about how we were doing well so that if we were doing well that would be perfectly clear to reporters and if we weren’t doing that well they would look at Twitter and see that it was a lot more mixed than they expected and sort of second guess their own perception that maybe the president wasn’t doing that well.”

This, in turn, points to shifts in both the news cycle and the media overall. Goff cited how Obama’s digital team thought a lot about how it could “dominate Twitter for an hour or two,” in part because this would spill over into coverage across different outlets and mediums. Even more, as the Romney team pointed out, the “spin room” is now taking shape on social media during events such as the debates themselves.

Why does all this matter? For one, although Twitter is often equated with “public opinion” in much popular (and even scholarly) discourse, staffers on these two campaigns viewed Twitter primarily as a forum for elites. What journalists see in their Twitter feeds may be the result of strategic politicians attempting to shape the contours of discussion.

Second, although so much post-election coverage focused on “big data,” Twitter was different. For the Obama and Romney campaigns, success on Twitter often resisted quantification, making a successful tweet difficult to predict. When asked how the campaign defined success on the platform, Goff responded that the campaign asked, “Is this what reporters are talking about or not?” Both campaigns suggested that numbers of followers mattered less than engagement — tweets that “hit at the right moment” and “took off.” Communication on Twitter was less a numbers game and more a creative practice premised on understanding context, timing and appropriateness.

It would be easy to dismiss campaigning on Twitter as frivolous or even manipulative. But that’s not how I see it. As my research makes clear, candidates and their campaigns do not control their publicity. Despite their best efforts, both campaigns pointed to moments when their opponents, journalists and citizens forced them to respond to situations, events and narratives that were not favorable to them. Twitter is simply a new medium where campaigns struggle to convince others, especially journalistic arbiters, that the economy is what they say it is, that their ideas are better than those of their opponent, that what they run on is important, and that their candidates are civil, competent and authentic, all in the attempt to win the right to govern.