Gone are the days when politicians could sleep easy if their convention speeches please television talking heads and newspaper columnists. Now, they also need Facebook "likes" and Twitter "retweets" by millions of followers.
Social media prowess is on display during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., this week and at the Republican gathering last week in Tampa, Fla. The dominant platforms -- Twitter and Facebook -- are hosting events and keeping track of who's up and who's down, socially speaking.
"We're measuring in real-time conversations that used to only take place at coffee shops and water coolers," said Twitter executive Adam Sharp, of San Francisco, who heads the government, news and social innovation unit.
First lady Michelle Obama's speech Tuesday night captivated Twitter, inspiring more than double the tweets-per-minute as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's address Aug. 30, the company said in a blog post. The first night of the Democratic convention saw 3 million tweets, 1 million shy of the total tweets during the entire three-day Republican gathering, Twitter said in the post.
Four years ago, the term "social media" wasn't widely used. On Election Day in 2008, there were 1.8 million tweets; now that many tweets are sent every six minutes, said Twitter spokeswoman Rachael Horwitz. In 2008, Facebook was popular mostly among college students. This year, there are more than 110,000 political Facebook pages in the United Stats and 11,000 pages for politicians, said Facebook executive Andrew Noyes, manager of public policy and communication.
"This will be, without a doubt, the most socially connected election season ever," said Joe Green, president and co-founder of NationBuilder. The Los Angeles-based company helps campaigns organize their online presence. "Democracy in its most basic form is really about mobilization of the masses, and that is what social media enables at the grassroots level."
President Barack Obama and Romney are spending millions of dollars to advertise online, including with Facebook and Twitter. Last week, Romney's team became the first political campaign to purchase a "trending topic" on Twitter, ensuring that his message would pop up prominently in the social network's stream.
The presidential candidates' campaigns have digital strategists on their payrolls and also work with firms such as Targeted Victory, which helps Republicans, and its Democratic counterpart, Blue State Digital.
When Obama takes the stage Thursday, Sept. 6, in Charlotte, he will essentially have 19 million potential publicists to spread his message. That's how many Twitter followers he has, making his account the sixth most popular in the world -- behind stars such as Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber.
Led by Obama and his 2008 technology team, Democrats have dominated social media. Yet Republicans, in some ways, are now "on equal footing," said Katie Harbath, a Facebook public policy manager and liaison to Republicans. Romney has more than 1 million Twitter followers and, like Obama, multiple Facebook pages.
Last week, Romney had more than 2 million people posting about him on Facebook -- at times more than Obama, Harbath said. She said Romney leveraged the convention to build his social media base, gaining more than 1 million fans during the week.
Romney got more juice on Twitter during his wife's speech than his own, Sharp said.
No one touched Clint Eastwood during the Republican convention until the Twitter spoof entity, @InvisibleObama, burst on the scene. It now has 68,000 followers. Eastwood's unusual address to GOP delegates spawned a Twitter tsunami when he addressed an empty chair as if it were Obama. The Obama campaign quickly posted a photo of the president in a chair and the message, "This seat's taken." As of Sept. 4, it had been retweeted more than 54,000 times -- the most activity of anyone during the Republican convention and the second most ever from Obama's account.