CHARLOTTE, N.C. First lady Michelle Obama’s speech Tuesday night drew thunderous applause from the thousands of party faithful gathered in Time Warner Cable Arena.
But for the first time at a Democratic convention, the reverberations could immediately be seen and measured around the country. Tens of thousands weighed in on Twitter from their smartphones, laptops and tablets – as many as 28,000 messages per minute during the peak of her prime-time speech.
Not quite mainstream four years ago, social media – Twitter in particular – has become a powerful political amplifier, measuring stick and organizational tool this year.
Three million tweets were sent on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, nearly 10 times more than at both 2008 conventions combined. By Wednesday afternoon, the DNC had eclipsed the 4 million tweets sent during all three days of the Republican convention in Tampa last week.
It marks a shift in how conventions are experienced, both by delegates and people following along from home.
“Social media has added a layer to conventions that wasn’t there before,” said Stonehill College political science professor Peter Ubertaccio, who is in Charlotte (and tweeting) during the convention. “You’ll never find a modern political convention again that doesn’t have an official hashtag. It would be just unthinkable.”
The 2004 election was the first time the Internet became truly important, especially in fundraising. Four years later marked the first time social media took hold as then-Sen. Barack Obama built a massive following among the young.
This year’s campaign, though, is the true coming-of-age of the social networking movement in politics.
“It has become a metric of success,” Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington told the Observer Wednesday.
By all accounts, then, Michelle Obama’s speech was a rousing one. The 28,000 tweets per minute was nearly double that of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney from the closing night of his party’s convention.
“It’s just a small bit of data, but it’s telling,” Ubertaccio said, though he noted that the Democratic Party’s core demographics skews younger and more likely to live online.
Both sides of the aisle are using social media to explain or counter what’s being said on television. The Republican National Committee, for example, tweeted rebuttals and counterpoints throughout Tuesday’s speeches.
“For the campaigns, it’s sort of a real-time spin room,” said Twitter corporate communications manager Elaine Filadelfo, who is in Charlotte this week. “You can have anyone from any party, any organization, live tweeting the speeches and really get their commentary out there as it happens.”
It’s a job
Delegates in particular have been busy with their phones in Charlotte, day and night.
“We’re sitting there the whole time during the convention on our phones the whole time,” said 19-year-old Wisconsin delegate Zach Bowman. “The point of the convention is to build up energy and spread the word. And obviously, the easiest way for our generation to do it is to put it online.”
“It’s been a job here – that we blog everything, put it on Facebook, that we spread the message about what we’re seeing on the floor as delegates,” Maryland delegate Jessy Mejia said.
North Carolina delegate Joy Cook, from Guilford County, said she was picked to represent the state in part because of her Twitter proficiency.
“What I’ve been doing is really taking my community, my family and friends who can’t be here, with me via Twitter,” the 35-year-old said. And it’s worked. Her follower count has doubled in the past week.
“Do you know the impact of that?” asked Cook, the morning after Tweeting photos of the first lady from the front row. “That means millions of people were able to have an up-to-the-minute conversation, a snapshot of what was going on.”
Joe Lockhart, former White House press secretary and current Facebook communications executive, said campaigns will likely continue toward social media and further transform how campaigns and conventions are structured.
Shorter conventions – both sides dropped a day this year – are likely to become the norm as social media gives parties new ways to engage voters, Lockhart said. “You’re going to find that the 30-second negative television ad is totally irrelevant,” he said.
Campaigns will already look completely different, with large teams of workers focusing on creating individualized content to put out on Facebook and Twitter.
“It really does behoove convention planners to make sure they always have some young people around them,” Ubertaccio said. “There is no going back.”
Sergio Tovar and Jessica Kennedy contributed.