Campaigning in the Twitter Era

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Sure, Newt Gingrich has been a center of media attention before, but a lot has changed since he was in office in the 1990s. And part of Gingrich’s problem is that he’s unused to modern media.

His troubles started in a traditional venue when he told Meet the Press host David Gregory that Paul Ryan’s plan to transform health care entitlements amounted to “right-wing social engineering.” But they were exacerbated by contradictory comments Gingrich made a month before on the trail, and by a video of a disgruntled voter chewing him out in Iowa after the fact.

In explaining his gaffe on a call with conservative bloggers, Gingrich blamed Gregory for going after him with “gotcha” questions. “I didn’t go in there quite hostile enough, because it didn’t occur to me going in that you’d have a series of setups,” Gingrich said, according to the Washington Examiner. “This wasn’t me randomly saying things. These were very deliberate efforts to pick fights.”

My queries to Gingrich a few weeks ago about Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget were not “gotcha” questions. And neither were Gregory’s. They were kind of obvious, standard questions given the news of late: Do you support the Ryan budget? And do you think Medicare should be turned into a voucher system?

Back in the 1990s, though, one off-the-cuff exchange with a single voter or reporter would not likely come back to haunt him, unless it was on video, and that was pretty rare. Reporters didn’t have digital tape recorders or flip cams back then. A month later, Gingrich could’ve claimed he’d been misquoted or the reporter had heard him wrong. The cable nets weren’t going to run with a reporter’s chicken scrawl as proof.

But these days, every word a politician utters has the capacity to come back and haunt them. Former President Bill Clinton went through a similar painful learning curve stumping for his wife on the 2008 campaign trail. He seemed taken aback when things he’d said in relatively small, casual settings ended up looped endlessly on the cable nets. Clinton misspoke so often he became a liability to the campaign. Ultimately, Clinton more-or-less learned how to handle the new media world, but it took him a while. By the time he was ready, Hillary’s campaign was practically over.

The truth is, we’re living in a post-“Macaca” world, as former Senator George Allen learned the hard way. Most candidates are followed around by interns hired by the opposition to video tape their every move. As candidate Barack Obama found out, not even closed fundraisers are sacrosanct as partisan bloggers can be guests as well.

I remember tinkering with my first Blackberry during a press conference covering John Kerry’s campaign. Suddenly, a White House press release arrived in my inbox announcing President George W. Bush’s slightly new position on oil and gas drilling. I raised my hand and asked Kerry about it. He obviously hadn’t heard of it and was taken aback. That was nearly eight years ago. These days, reporters tweet press conferences as they happen and opposition staffers fire questions, dump oppo research and respond in real time – surrogates practically have their own debate online.

Candidates now have to scrub their speech so much that they become boring. Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels – all rarely misspeak. Yawn. John McCain used to protect himself by misspeaking so much that reporters dismissed it as ‘That’s just John McCain, I know what he meant.’ Then, when he stopped talking to reporters for fear of mistakes, he became stiff and painfully boring. Some still try to use gaffes to their advantage — the more the media pounced on Sarah Palin’s slip-ups, the more her supporters loved her — but it’s difficult in the TV-Twitter-Youtube echo chamber.

Gingrich, as he told Alex Altman this week, is motoring through this with “cheerful persistence.” It will be interesting to see how quickly he learns to adapt. His next media appearance will be Sunday on Face the Nation, followed by a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with Washington reporters on Monday. Will Gingrich learn to control his tongue? And would he still be worth covering if and when the entertainment value vanishes? Gingrich sure thinks he will be.