WASHINGTON — Almost immediately after Hilary Rosen said Ann Romney hadn’t worked a day in her life, the Romney campaign in Boston sprang into action — beginning to use long-dormant Twitter and Facebook accounts for Mitt’s better half, and aggressively challenging Democrats to repudiate Rosen’s remark.
Within an hour, the Romney campaign had forced President Barack Obama’s advisers to express disappointment with an occasional ally, and turned the attention away from critical analyses of Romney’s assertion that 92 percent of jobs lost since January 2009 were lost by women.
On Wednesday, Republicans flooded Twitter with jokes and riffs about a revelation in Obama’s memoir that he at dog meat in Indonesia, an absurdist answer to Democrats’ delight in raising an over-played episode in which Romney went on vacation with his dog, Seamus, in a crate on the roof of the family car.
That rapid, swarming response, led in part by Romney’s own staff, was indicative of the increasing Republican embrace of Twitter as a core messaging tool, and as a way to dominate the inside-the-beltway conversation.
Romney bragged about his campaign’s Twitter presence to a close-door gathering of donors over the weekend.
"We are behind when it comes to commentators on TV. They tend to be liberal," NBC News quoted Romney as saying. "Where we are ahead or even is on Twitter and on the Internet.”
Twitter, despite its explosive growth, remains however a relatively small medium for the truest junkies.
At its peak last week, there were only 100,000 Twitter mentions of Ann Romney or her Twitter account @AnnDRomney in a single day — double Obama’s average on a normal day, but still a tiny fraction of the over 340 million tweets sent daily, according to the Twitter search engine Topsy. The hashtag of choice for the canine Obama jokes, #obamadogrecipes, was used 5,257 times as of Wednesday night, an impressive sum by the standards of a political Twitter campaign, but a tiny blip in the Twitter flow. The non-political hashtag #thoughtsduringschool, for instance, was tweeted 175,000 times during a single hour Wednesday night, according to Topsy.
One top Democrat described the Romney effort as an attempt to win the “Mike Allen, Mark Halperin, John Heilemann election,” but not influencing voters beyond the Beltway.
“They get one vote just like every other American,” he said. “The rest of the country isn’t paying attention to Twitter like those of us in politics. What matters is when you drive engagement off Twitter into real life.”
Senior Obama campaign officials questioned the strategy, and said it reinforced the view among reporters that the Romney campaign is not ready for the big leagues of messaging to the broader electorate.
But capturing the inside conversation has always been a central goal of political campaigns. And the Romney campaign argues that the digital efforts yield quantifiable results — Twitter links further clicks to the campaign’s web videos and website by a significant multiple, and the narratives they push enters into the political conversation.
“Twitter is as it happens, and Facebook is the next day, and you optimize everything else for Google the day after,” said a senior aide.
The Romney campaign went so far as to create a Twitter presence for Beth Myers, the long-time Romney adviser who will be leading the search for his running-mate — a job whose major requirement is discretion.
The aide sees a clear upside in engaging on Twitter, saying it reflects a marked shift for Republicans from 2008, when Democrats dominated social media with little organized competition.
“It’s the early warning signal for us about what people are talking about, but it’s also an opportunity to drive the conversation among reporters and supporters — to bring up issues we want to talk about and Democrats don't. We’re not just going to be reactive online this time,” the aide said.
Several Republican operatives interviewed by BuzzFeed expressed doubts about Romney’s Twitter efforts, worried that flare-ups over the war on women and the push to message to insiders will lead to a series of tactical victories, but not a strategic one in the fall.
“You can win the day on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and so on, and still lose the week,” cautioned one veteran Republican. “You need a message, a story, to win an election. Barack Obama didn’t win in 2008 because of his digital strategy — it helped, but it’s no substitute for everything else.”
The Romney campaign, however, can take some satisfaction in having won a day, or two. It’s usually better to win the day than to lose it.