The 140-Character Campaign: Which GOP Candidate Is Winning at Social Media?


Can a presidential candidate win an election 140 characters at a time? In this digital age, they sure are trying.

Whether it is a promoted tweet, a YouTube video or a Google search ad, presidential campaigns have infiltrated social media in unprecedented ways this election cycle.

“It would be crazy for a campaign, speaking in general terms, not to have a Twitter account,” said Zach Moffatt, the digital director for Mitt Romney’s campaign. “It’s just become the way campaigning has to be.”

For the first time in presidential campaign history, candidates can buy ads that run before YouTube videos and pay to put their tweets at the top of users’ newsfeeds and search results on Twitter.

The micro-blogging site’s new political ad features were launched in mid-September and the YouTube “pre-roll” ads, which are more expensive, became available during the 2010 midterm elections.

The Romney’s team has jumped at these opportunities and was the first presidential candidate to buy Twitter’s “promoted tweets” so more people would see his 140 character messages more often.

After announcing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s endorsement, the Romney campaign promoted a tweet about it. About 18,000 people clicked on the tweet’s link and almost 600 people retweeted it.

“If you can inspire people on Facebook and on Twitter to share your message, to retweet you, that’s an incredibly powerful statement by that person,” said Patrick Ruffini, a digital strategist with the Republican political consulting agency Engage. “When ordinary supports retweet you, the multiplier effect is huge. Just a few hundred people can reach hundreds of thousands of people.”

But the Romney campaign did not stop at Twitter. It also ran ads before videos on YouTube about the endorsement and bought the Google search words “Chris Christie” so every time someone Googled the governor’s name, a Romney ad appeared on the search page.

“If you’re not advertising online, you’re missing a huge group of people who will be engaged on Election Day,” Moffatt said. “If you’re not advertising online, it would be like making a really great television spot and running it one time on one channel.”

But despite the Romney campaign’s widespread reach on social media web sites, his rival as front-runner, Herman Cain, is taking the crown in the online realm, Ruffini said.

“Cain is new so people are trying to find out about him,” Ruffini said. “The problem [with Romney] is he’s been around awhile. He’s the establishment candidate and he’s probably not going to get a tremendous amount of support online.”

Ruffini said in order to inspire online chatter, a candidate has to “say and do interesting things,” which Cain is currently excelling at.  Over the past week on Facebook, for example, 80,000 were talking about the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO each day, according to an analysis by Engage.

Comparatively, about 36,000 Facebook users mentioned Romney throughout the week. About 34,000 people were talking about Ron Paul and about 23,000 posted about Michele Bachmann.

But, Ruffini noted, that “could change on a dime” because of the sheer speed of information sharing that takes place online.

“If you’re losing momentum and you’re losing steam, people are going to drop you like a hot potato,” he said. “The online audience especially is extremely finicky.”

And social media buzz does not necessarily translate into Election Day votes, Ruffini said in a blog post about the Facebook findings.

“Any measure of Internet buzz – be it tweets, Facebook posts or searches – will reward the most controversial and talked-about public figures, and these aren’t always the highest vote getters,” Ruffini wrote. “That’s probably why Cain, with his 9-9-9 plan and his recent surge in the polls, leads, and why Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul place strongly.”

Since his official candidate page was created in 2006, Paul has gained more than 20,000 subscribers and 2.2 million video views. More than 4,000 people subscribed to Paul’s YouTube account over the past month, more than every other presidential candidate, including President Obama, combined. 

But in the 2 months since Perry’s YouTube page launched, the Texas Governor has already surpassed Paul’s online video popularity , drawing 2.4 million video views almost all of which came from his second campaign ad which calls Obama “president zero” and slams him for creating “zero jobs.” Nearly 2 million people have watched the ad on YouTube since it launched September 20.  

And speaking of going viral, 1.9 million people have watched one of Cain’s YouTube videos in the mere two weeks that the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO created his channel. In fact Cain’s 9-9-9 plan video was the number one viewed political video this past week, according to the YouTube Politics page rankings.

“Cain frankly I think just needs to be in a position to capitalize on his current moment and momentum to raise a lot of money online,” Ruffini said. “He really doesn’t have another shot. This is his moment right now to use this moment to effectively kind of cash in.”