When Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) decided to run for Minority Leader after Democrats lost the House in November, she wanted to get the news out fast and cast a wide net. So she tweeted it.
Across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was tweeting with pop star Lady Gaga to drum up support for repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the lame-duck Congress. And House Republican leaders seized on social media on the night of the State of the Union, posting 31 YouTube videos in rapid-fire response to Twitter-fed questions from the public.
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) don’t even have Twitter accounts.
The role of social media in Congressional leaders’ messaging and outreach has exploded over the past few years, whether it be through tweets about floor schedule updates or on Facebook. But within that trend is a clear — and nonpartisan — divide between the savvy and those still in the dark.
House Democratic and Republican leadership aides are eager to tout their bosses’ use of social media.
Gerrit Lansing, a spokesman for House Chief Deputy Majority Whip Peter Roskam (Ill.), hailed Republicans’ “great success” with their State of the Union effort. Eight Members participated — including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) — as GOP staffers filmed, edited and tweeted video responses that were uploaded to YouTube every four minutes. Cantor has already emerged as a leader in social media with a separate project, YouCut, which allows people to vote online for specific spending cuts, and every week he takes the winning items to the House floor for a vote.
House Republican leaders also harnessed social media to propel their “Pledge to America” agenda; they solicited tens of thousands of ideas from people on the Internet about what should be on the GOP agenda, along with 1 million votes and comments on proposals.
“House Republicans are always eager to find new ways to communicate with constituents and this State of the Union response was the next step in engaging constituents in near real time, demonstrating that House Republicans remain the dominant social media force on Capitol Hill,” Lansing said.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has also proved to be adept with new media: Last June, he organized a “Member Online All-Star Competition” to get lawmakers engaged on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D-Puerto Rico) was named MVP, and the effort led to House Democrats acquiring more than 43,000 followers and subscribers within three weeks. Hoyer also hosted a “5 at 5” week on Twitter, where every day he asked people to tweet to him whatever questions they had. At 5 p.m., five questions were answered.
“House Democrats are constantly coming up with new and innovative ways to talk to their constituents and deliver our message through social media, and this continues to be a focus for us throughout this Congress,” Hoyer spokeswoman Katie Grant said.
The Obama administration, which has made social media a hallmark of its operations, continues to step up its efforts: Since October, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has hosted more than a dozen “First Question” sessions on Twitter, during which he takes questions from the public. And shortly after the State of the Union, the White House hosted four Facebook live chats with senior policy advisers and a YouTube interview with President Barack Obama.
“I think the president looks at something like YouTube as sort of an online town hall meeting,” Gibbs said during a briefing last month.
“Obviously a number of us use different types of social media like Twitter to communicate what the government is doing to the people in this country. I think it’s just another way of bringing people a little closer to the decisions that get made here and why,” he said.
But not all of our nation’s leaders are adding their 140 characters to the conversation. McConnell and Durbin have yet to enter the Twitter fray. And while Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) are active tweeters, they treat it more as an extension of traditional press efforts instead of engaging with people on a more personal level.
Ron Bonjean, who was a spokesman for then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said the “tipping point” for blogging and social media on Capitol Hill came in 2005. That was the year that Hastert started his own blog; since then, leadership offices have taken on new staff and beefed up their budgets specifically for tracking new media.
“Staffers are poring through the conservative blogs to see what is going to trend,” Bonjean said. “Those ideas often then reappear with a larger megaphone on shows with a lot of audience. If something appears on Red State, staffers are very prone to circulating it to send up those red flares.”
Case in point: When editors of the prominent conservative blog RedState criticized the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s decision to endorse then-Gov. Charlie Crist in the 2009 Florida GOP Primary over conservative Marco Rubio, NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) posted a lengthy response directly on the blog to counter the criticisms.
Simon Rosenberg, a veteran of the Clinton White House who now leads the progressive group NDN, noted how blogs and news outlets are categorized differently at the White House and on Capitol Hill. The White House has separate e-mail press lists for bloggers, and Pelosi, for one, hired a director of new media who has put together numerous conference calls and sit-downs exclusively with Pelosi and bloggers.
What is dubbed “new media” has a “very different sensibility than the traditional media,” Rosenberg said. “There are very few staffers in Washington who can do both well. They are just different animals.”
Pelosi’s point person on social media, Karina Newton, is one of those people, he said, referring to her as “the conductor of the orchestra of the Internet and net-roots world.”
It remains to be seen which party will trump the other in the world of social media, but Republican lawmakers on Twitter outnumber their Democratic counterparts 134 to 115, according to Tweet Congress, which tracks Members of Congress who tweet.
“While searching for our local congressmen on Twitter we were amazed at how many folks on the Hill aren’t tweeting,” reads the website. “This site is a grass roots effort to get our men and women in Congress to open up and have a real conversation with us.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) already gets points for creativity in trying to engage constituents online: In addition to tweeting a dozen live updates from an Iowa college women’s basketball game last week, including a tweet that “Jackie kalins mother is not in her usual seat at game,” he released a campaign ad in September reminding people that he can be reached on Facebook and Twitter. The video features two older women nervously whispering that they heard that Grassley has “a Twitter” and wondering, “Can it be cured?”
“Oh, not that kind. I like to use new technologies like Twitter and Facebook just to keep in touch,” Grassley says in the ad. “I’ll tweet, I’ll text, I’ll do whatever it takes. I work for you.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.