Amidst arguments about health-care reform and the economy, Twitter has become a major outlet for politicians to connect directly with supporters, hash out ideas, and air complaints about opponents. It has also played a role in many of this year's most unusual political stories. Last February, Rep. Pete Hoekstra tweeted about a secret trip to Iraq. This summer, Newt Gingrich called Sonia Sotomayor “racist” in a tweet (he later said he shouldn't have used the term), and Sarah Palin’s musings became fodder for a parody by William Shatner. Suddenly all of Washington is atwitter, and Democrats and Republicans are trying to capture a dominant share of the audience.
So far, media analysts have largely ceded the battle to the GOP. The Washington Times and CNN have both claimed that conservatives have the "upper hand" on Twitter, and at first glance, that appears to be true. TweetCongress.org, a directory of members of Congress on Twitter, lists 101 Republicans on the site and just 57 Democrats. Each party is mostly held up by a few Twitter superstars (like Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and Republican Sen. John McCain), but congressional Republicans overall have more followers and tweet more often. The five highest-ranking Republicans on Tweet Congress, led by McCain, have a combined 1.3 million followers. The top 10 Democrats, have about 72,000.
Beyond Congress, superstar users like Palin and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can claim hundreds of thousands, even millions of followers. But numbers don't necessarily mean dominance. Twitter strategies on both sides of the aisle are radically different, and the way liberals have been using the service may turn out to be more effective in the long run. But it's too soon to declare a victor yet in this fight.
A look at the profiles listed on Tweet Congress shows that members from both parties are largely using the site to promote their legislative goals and accomplishments. But conservatives tweet more provocatively, and they draw more notice as a result. "It's a survival tactic," says David All, president of the David All Group, a conservative media consulting firm. "[Republicans] are in the minority. They can't get press clips anymore. They need to rally support for their policies outside of the Beltway."
Conservatives, according to All, see Twitter as an online soapbox, a way to reach large audiences when traditional media outlets won't pay attention. When Sen. Chuck Grassley directed angry missives at President Obama earlier this summer ("When you are a 'hammer' u think evrything is NAIL I'm no NAIL"), he briefly dominated the news cycle, even though the White House press corps was traveling through Europe at the time. Combative tweets like Grassley's make for great reading, so it's no surprise that Republicans draw larger audiences than Democrats. But there's no way to tell how many of those Republican followers are supporters, and how many are just there for the show.
That's not to say that top Democrats are doing a better job of connecting with constituents on Twitter. Tweet Congress measures how often legislators send tweets and replies to other Twitter users, and scores on both sides of the aisle tend to hover around zero. But according to new-media specialists, most of the liberal action on Twitter isn't coming from the Democratic Party. Instead, it's coming from grassroots organizers who are building a base of like-minded activists. Jim Gilliam, a Los Angeles-based Web developer, says that unlike conservatives, progressives see Twitter "more as a way to connect people with each other." He helped found TweetProgress.us, a directory of progressive Twitter users, and is currently working on GovLuv.org, a nonpartisan governmental directory scheduled to debut in September. He and his progressive colleagues use Twitter to collate support from the bottom up, rather than send messages from the top down.
Conservatives and liberals even group themselves differently on Twitter. Political activity on the site revolves around two groups: Top Conservatives on Twitter (whose members tag their tweets #tcot) and Progressives 2.0 (#P2). The term P2 was coined by Tweet Progress, while TCOT is an outgrowth of a Web site that ranks right-of-center Twitter users. The TCOT site reflects a top-down approach to organizing. It centers on three lists of conservatives—those with the most followers, those who follow the most users, and those deemed "most interesting"—that are dominated by big names like Palin, Gingrich, and Karl Rove. Tweet Progress, in contrast, doesn't rank its users; even Al Gore, who has 1.5 million followers, is on equal footing with members who might have only 20 or 30 fans. The group's goal, according to Gilliam, is simply "to connect progressives with each other, and to bring more progressives on Twitter."
All and Gilliam's personal approaches to Twitter reflect a broader partisan divide. All says his favorite politician on the site is Senator Grassley, who has almost 16,000 followers but doesn't usually send individual replies to them. Gilliam, the liberal online activist, admires Eric Garcetti, a Los Angeles city council member who has just 1,500 followers and replies to them often, sending out tweets on local traffic conditions or performances he's recently seen. All and Gilliam's preferences are predictable, given their jobs. But if other members of the Twittersphere share their biases, then Democrats and Republicans will have to carve out very different spaces for themselves online. They'll be doing entirely different things, and it seems unfair to compare them.
As Twitter becomes increasingly popular, will these different approaches to social media shape national politics? Gilliam and All say it will, but they're not sure how. Right now, Republicans on Twitter can dominate the national conversation with their constant chatter. That, in turn, draws their supporters into the political fray. But strong local groups can be a powerful force in winning elections. Both sides understand the power of local contacts. "The ability to have 10 people for a local politician, who are willing to take action for that politician—that's big," says All. And, for now, progressives on Twitter seem better positioned to harness that power and turn it into a force for the mainstream Democratic Party. The party might not choose to align itself with this force—"they like to position themselves differently," says Gilliam of centrist Democrats—but if it does, the Twitter dynamic could change completely by next year's midterm elections.
For the foreseeable future, Republicans will continue to broadcast their message widely,while the left-most wing of the Democratic Party mounts a quiet, steady defense. Strategists on both sides agree that Twitter—or at least, the short-form communication that Twitter has pioneered—will be crucial to campaigns for years to come. It turns out that a powerful message can indeed be delivered with only 140 characters.