Gingrich engages his "tweeples" on social media

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Newt Gingrich is amused at the notion of “tweeples” and for a while was saying “hash mark” instead of the correct “hash tag” to talk about a Twitter tool.

But the 68-year-old candidate has developed a robust social media operation that experts say is in many ways savvier than his Republican presidential rivals in amplifying his message and engaging the public.

Look no further than his pledge that gas will return to $2.50 a gallon if he is elected. The campaign started a #250gas Twitter hashtag in recent weeks to condense and distribute the message, and it has been tweeted 35,105 times reaching as many as 7 million Twitter users, the campaign said.

Perhaps the biggest sign of its influence is the fact that President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign – the Internet politicking standard-bearer -- purchased advertising space so if you search for #250gas, you see a tweet from Obama linking to his energy policy.

Gingrich has settled on gas prices, and a claim that increased domestic drilling will stem their rapid rise, in order to resuscitate his lagging campaign. Without much money to spend on pricey television advertising, the Internet is a cheap way to spread the news – and when Gingrich fans do it on social media, it’s free.

Gingrich closes every speech with a social media-based appeal, telling crowds to write “Newt = $2.50 gas” on their Facebook pages and use the Twitter hashtag. In Pell City, Ala., on Wednesday he added an request to take photos of his $2.50 gas rally signs with the sharable application Instagram.

“That’s something I actually don’t do, but my wife has told me I should,” Gingrich said. “A woman came up to me in Montgomery and told me she used Instagram. I’m trying to learn all these new things.”

It’s fitting for a candidate who broke ground by officially announcing his presidential candidacy on Twitter in May. He now inhabits everything from Pinterest to Google Plus.

“There’s all of these niche social networks, and Newt, he’s very good in that he jumps on every social network there is,” said Patrick Ruffini, the president of media firm EngageDC who also has worked on Republican campaigns. “That’s good. That shows they’re diligent.”

The platform Gingrich spends the most time – and money – on is social media behemoth Facebook, where you can even reach “your 70-year-old tea party grandma,” said Gingrich campaign social media consultant Vincent Harris.

Harris worked for Rick Perry’s campaign until the Texas governor bowed out of the race in January and Gingrich snagged his services. While Perry was familiar with the tools – and even tweeted himself, which Gingrich typically does not do – “I wouldn’t say the web is as much of a critical central piece of the campaign as it was on the Gingrich campaign,” Harris said.

Gingrich was the first candidate to upgrade to a “timeline” page on Facebook, then he launched a timeline to attack rival Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor – basically an opposition research file, sorted by year.

Because Facebook users willingly share so much information, it allows incredibly precise communication. Harris said the campaign this week is advertising on Facebook ahead of Tuesday’s critical Alabama and Mississippi primaries targeting graduates of Christian colleges in those two states.

Other tools include the ability for Gingrich supporters to make phone calls to voters through Facebook, and broadcast how many calls they have made to encourage competition. That particular feature prompted the Facebook political team to single out Gingrich’s operation.

In a December blog post company officials wrote: “Gingrich’s Facebook page is a great example of providing many ways for supporters to get involved.”

But the Gingrich campaign – and all the Republicans in the field – are only beginning to scratch the surface.

“Newt Gingrich, he is pretty good -- or he seems to be pretty good -- at reactive uses of social media rather than proactive uses of social media,” said Heather LaMarre, a University of Minnesota professor who researches candidates’ use of social media tools.

“If something comes up in the press or comes out in a debate, he’s pretty good at using social media to get the drumbeat going and raise attention about an issue. None of them have shown great strategy at launching initiatives and getting people excited about things ahead of time in social media.”

Republicans also have yet to tap into the get-out-the-vote tools the Democrats have, Ruffini said.

“I don’t think we’re quite where the Obama campaign is socially,” he said. “Obviously they’ve got good numbers, but that’s not the full story. They are very intently focused on data, data mining, capturing data from all these different platforms and transforming it to better targeting. … I don’t think Republican candidates are anywhere near close to that.”

Harris insists that Gingrich and other Republicans are matching Team Obama online, and noted the campaign employs technology that gathers all the social media chatter around big events like debates and puts it into visual form for easy study.

Despite all the new tools and ways to engage, LaMarre said social media has not yet transformed the 2012 campaign, and Gingrich is a prime example.

“The two comebacks he has had, they weren’t from something he did on social media … it was more to do with the traditional campaign,” she said, referring to televised debates.

“It’s amplification effect, the ability to amplify a message quickly. … Until people learn how to make it more proactive, how to use it to launch campaigns and get it going rather than discuss what actually happened, until they do that, it’s not going to be all that mind blowing of a radical change in the way we elect people.”