Democrats Look to Twitter to Reverse Fortunes for 2012

Posted March 11, 2011 at 5:52pm

Updated: 11:55 p.m.

Democrats are hoping they’ve found a secret weapon for winning back the House in 2012: Twitter.

House Democrats say that while they may be outnumbered, they stand to come out ahead by becoming more savvy to social media to stay more directly connected to the public.

“We know that we’re up against a team of about 43 think tanks on the other side. … But when you engage them in a good debate, they’re shallow. They have no other place to go except to keep saying the same things over and over again,” Rep. Mike Honda told attendees of the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting in February.

The California Democrat pointed to the roles that Twitter and Facebook have played in affecting political climates, most recently in the context of the government upheaval in Egypt and labor disputes in Wisconsin. Democrats should harness that same potential when it comes to developing an effective messaging strategy this cycle, Honda said.

“I think when we have more air time and utilize technology … we can focus on getting control back of Congress in 2012,” he said.

Honda was one of 20 Democrats who took part last week in a Twitter town hall, an hourlong forum that involved fielding Twitter questions about the budget debate. Democrats used the event to bash Republicans for their “irresponsible spending bill” and, by the end, said the success of the event was evident by its ranking on Twitter: The hashtag that people used to follow the event, #AskDems, was ranked the third most discussed topic nationally.

“Members of Congress need to go where ‘We the People’ are, and that increasingly means social media platforms like Twitter,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who helped organize the event. “Public research helped create the Internet; it’s about time public servants utilized it to its fullest potential.”

Honda, co-chairman of the House Democratic Caucus New Media Working Group, is launching a new media mentoring program in the near future. And House Democrats, led by Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.), are kicking off a monthly “blogger open house” this wek where Members can stop by during a two-hour period to talk to bloggers about what is going on in Congress.

Rank-and-file Democrats aren’t the only ones pushing for expanded use of social media. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) participated in last week’s town hall, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) held a first-ever “speed geeking” session — like speed dating, but for technology, aides said — for Members last week. During the session, Democrats rotated around the room for quick briefings on how Facebook and Twitter work and why they are key tools for reaching their constituents.

A Democratic leadership aide described the event as a “nice hands-on training” for Members less familiar with social media, and it even led to one Member signing up for Twitter on the spot:
@DelegateDonna (Democratic Del. Donna Christensen of the Virgin Islands).

“Just generally, [Pelosi] is very committed to having a new media component to all of our messaging efforts,” the aide said. “It’s not just for [Members’] grandkids to tell them about.”

Democratic leaders have also stepped up their efforts to ensure that their staffers are taking full advantage of social media. They have has hosted three staff briefings this year on the issue: The first was on Google ads and YouTube, the second was on Facebook, and the third was last week on Twitter.

“Social media is just really where you need to be; if you’re not paying attention or participating, the conversation is happening without you,” the leadership aide said. Members are being strongly encouraged to become more savvy about engaging with constituents online, “a location they’re perhaps not as familiar with, but the exchange and dialogue is something they’re very familiar with.”

Not that Democrats aren’t facing some significant obstacles in winning the online messaging war. Honda was greeted with several heads shaking “no” when, during last month’s DNC event, he asked whether people felt Congressional Democrats were sending consistent messages into the community. And from a sheer numbers standpoint, Republicans outnumber Democrats on Twitter by 19, 134 to 115.

But it can’t hurt that House Democrats’ biggest asset, President Barack Obama, in January brought David Plouffe into the White House as a senior adviser. Plouffe, Obama’s point man on social media in the 2008 presidential campaign, is widely known as the brain behind the innovative strategy that not only got Obama elected but brought in the largest amount of campaign funding in election history.

“We saw the mobilization of new voters during the presidential campaign and the Congressional campaigns of 2008. Having the White House and House Democrats committed to building on that success would mean nothing but more opportunities for us to succeed,” a senior Democratic aide said.