Seven Candidates; 140 Characters: Tweeting Toward the White House

By Alex Roarty June 14, 2012

“2012 is the first presidential race where Twitter really has a massive role,” said Vincent Harris, a Republican strategist and social media consultant.

Twitter’s rise is a tactical challenge for campaigns: How do they use a service that could, theoretically, give everyone on the campaign a bullhorn and gives candidates and staffers alike a chance to confront rivals and opponents in full view of the public and media? It’s a challenge that could provide ripe rewards for adept campaigns, but also poses potential perils.

In a race that’s up for grabs, any advantage could be important. For whichever campaign best and most quickly learns to handle Twitter, that could be a small but significant edge.

One thing is for sure: No campaign can afford to be without a Twitter account.

“It’s now just like having a telephone in the 1950s — you had to have one,” said Albert May, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University who has studied the use of Twitter on Capitol Hill. “You had to adapt to TV. You had to adapt to radio.”

Twitter’s power is not in how many people are on it, but in who uses it. Even if the total number of people on the service remains small relative to the number of actual voters, its users comprise an elite that talks to and moves larger audiences.

“On Twitter, there is no doubt you are reaching the influencers, you are reaching the media, activists, elected officials,” said Harris. “You are reaching political grassroots leaders.”

So if it’s not a question of whether campaigns engage on the social-media service, it becomes a question of how. And the playbook for how campaigns should use it remains unwritten.

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