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In the last election cycle, Democrats were generally credited with leveraging the pioneering work of 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean to create an entire online social-media ecosystem for organizers, advocates, supporters, and contributors to help propel Barack Obama to the White House.
There's no presidential election this year. But there's a heated battle for control of Congress. And when it comes to the hottest social media tool—Twitter—a new study suggests that Republican House members are leaving their Democratic counterparts in the dust. It also shows Rep. Michele Bachmann far ahead of most of her GOP House colleagues, and all of the Minnesota delegation, when it comes to working the platform.
The study, called Twongress, was prepared for a pharmaceutical-industry marketing group, based on data collected in November. Its author, Mark Senak, used fairly basic measurements—Twitter followers, re-tweeters, and such—and a common tool, Twitalyzer, to tease out some interesting data.
In the House, Bachmann was consistently in the top 10—and Republicans dominated the top 10 categories—measured in the study. First, the basic numbers:
• Followers: 11,293 / fifth place.
• Following: 8,807 / fifth place.
Then Senak looked at how effective House members were at using Twitter—how social they were—and ranked them:
• Generosity measures how often someone re-tweets others' postings. Bachmann scored zero, as did eight others, but her overall strength kept her in the top 10.
• Clout is a figure based on the number of times that someone's tweets are cited, mentioned, or re-tweeted. Bachmann placed seventh.
• Influence pulls together the categories above. Bachmann and Cantor were tops, with scores of 100.
To paraphrase something she once famously said at Mac Hammond's church, Bachmann's not just hot for Jesus, she's hot for Twitter.
Big deal, says Minnesota DFL Chairman Brian Melendez.
"I'd be surprised if Bachmann wasn't leading," he said. "Her full-time job seems to be finding ways to publicize herself. She doesn't do anything else."
He dismissed Bachmann's Twitter activity, and the Republicans' embrace of the platform, as "a tiny little eddy in the estuary" of social media.
"It's the entry-level tool," and the trendy tool of the moment, Melendez says, asserting that his party's social-media bench is deeper and broader than anything the Republicans can bring to the match.
Flavor of the month it may be—despite its skyrocketing growth, its roughly 18 million users are dwarfed by the more than 100 million on Facebook in the U.S. alone—but Twitter offers politicians and activists advantages that Republicans seem to grasp better than Democrats, says Blois Olson, a one-time Democratic strategist now with the Minneapolis public relations firm Tunheim Partners.
Twitter, Olson says, allows politically active users to create self-selected groups interested in topics and ideas. Those users don't want to see news from Michele Bachmann and her other supporters passively as they scroll through a blizzard of Facebook status updates on what their friends had for breakfast, he says. Instead they are actively seeking information from politicians such as Bachmann, as well as her followers. They use her tweets as a personal newswire to stay informed and active about topics and issues they care deeply about.
And Republicans are happy to use that platform—any platform, really—since they're out of power and looking for ways to get their message heard, says Luke Hellier, a former Bachmann staffer who now blogs at Minnesota Democrats Exposed.
"In the last several years, Democrats have far exceeded Republicans in almost every aspect of the internet and blogging," he says. "When the Republicans were in the majority, they had a much easier time using traditional media to get their message out. Since then, there has been an increased awareness of social media by Republicans who are using every outlet to push their message out now that they are squarely in the minority."
That awareness is part and parcel of a dedicated effort to get state Republican lawmakers, staffers, and supporters to adopt social media, says state GOP chair Tony Sutton. Leading the charge: former MDE blogger and current GOP deputy chair Michael Brodkorb, and social-media staffer Susan Closmore.
"Necessity is the mother of invention," Sutton says, and social media offers a quick, cheap, and effective way to get the party's message out.
It also offers pitfalls for a party known for its strict message control. Exhibit A: Mike Parry, who recently won a special election to replace fellow Republican Dick Day in the state Senate. Parry was called out by Democrats for posting, and then getting caught scrubbing, an anti-Obama tweet with some nasty racial overtones.
Parry's situation is a good lesson in how posting a comment in the heat of the moment can lead to trouble, Sutton says. But it also shows that the party can engage the public in the largely uncontrolled environment of social media, and still notch a win. That's a big step for a party famous for its message of discipline.
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