WASHINGTON » President Barack Obama’s image projected from one of the many television screens that hang in Rep. Eric Cantor’s office suite, where the president could be seen telling a crowd in North Carolina that he was open to "any serious idea" Republicans offered on jobs.
Within seconds, Brad Dayspring, Cantor’s Rasputin of retort, was on the case, his fingers ripping across the keyboard as if individually caffeinated.
"Obama says he’s open to any "serious #GOP idea," typed Dayspring, the aggressive spokesman for Cantor, the Republican from Virginia who serves as House majority leader, in a message on Twitter. "Here are 15 jobs bills stalled in the Senate to get him started."
A link from Cantor’s blog was quickly pasted in, the send button was hit, and Dayspring sat back slightly in his chair, pleased.
Barely a minute goes by between the time Obama — or a high-ranking member of his administration — makes a speech, holds a news conference or says something to a talk show host, and a team of young Republican House staffers, fueled by pizza and partisanship, punches back.
It’s a bit of a table turn on Obama, whose 2008 campaign masterfully capitalized on social media in a way that left Republicans bruised and scrambling. Now, after a post-election order from Speaker John A. Boehner that year, House Republicans have embraced Twitter as their karaoke microphone to push their message against the White House bullhorn.
The insta-tweet has revolutionized rapid response operations that just two years ago relied heavily on cable television, emails and news conferences to spread the word of the opposition, which often took a day or two to gain momentum. That time lag could delay the message from taking hold, a result Republicans were eager to undo.
"In the Hill environment, minutes count," said Dayspring, whose mad-dash Twitter messaging is supplemented by his colleague Brian Patrick, Cantor’s blogger and a Twitter expert who is known as Boomer for his ability to pump up Republican crowds.
"It’s far more like a campaign environment now," Dayspring said.
As a candidate, Obama made productive use of Facebook, MySpace and his website as tools of outreach and organization. Through social media, money was raised, volunteers were gathered, events were publicized and videos of the candidate went instantly viral. His Republican rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, was flat-footed in the same arena (although he has become a devout Twitter believer since). Out of that experience was born a list of roughly 13 million Twitter users, like the famous Republican mailing lists of the past, this one on steroids.
At a January 2009 retreat, as defeated Republicans licked their wounds, Boehner told his colleagues that they needed to "think about the potential of new media," according to a copy of his remarks. He urged members and their staff to immediately get themselves on YouTube and Twitter, as he did. Without control of the House floor, it became the Republican’s main messaging tool as they mounted their successful push to capture control of the House. Now, it is their weapon of repetition.
House Republican members have more than twice as many followers as their Democratic counterparts — about 1.3 million versus roughly 600,000 — and are far more active on Twitter with more than 157,000 individual Twitter messages, versus roughly 62,000 for Democrats.
"Once Republicans get their act together, they are really good at organizing," said Andrew Rasiej, the founder of Personal Democracy Media, which studies how technology is changing politics. Republicans in the House are using technology "in order to blunt the power of the White House in a new political media ecology that benefits from speed," he said.
But if officials at the White House were to apply a hashtag to the opposition’s Twitter efforts, it might be #notimpressed.
"The Republicans in Congress are using new media technology to compete for the attention of Beltway reporters," said Josh Earnest, the White House deputy press secretary. "We use it to compete for the attention of the American people," he said, pointing to interactive forums that the White House conducts. "These are two different goals."
At a daily meeting in Boehner’s office, the communications staff decides what they should be Twittering and blogging about, said Don Seymour, the speaker’s digital communications director. He sits at a desk with one computer for his email and another monitor for his Tweet Deck, his iPad on his lap and a Coke in one hand. A half-dozen televisions show various stations and the House and Senate floors above, where someone might say something that begs for instant reaction.
If so, there is a quick video playback of what is said, rapid research — sometimes vetted by policymakers, to determine how that might be inconsistent with prior statements — then a response, often within minutes.
These efforts are sometimes coordinated with committee aides when a relevant issue may be the center of the day’s conversation. "What makes it effective is that it works in concert with everything else," Seymour said.
Recently when Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, said during a committee meeting that Republicans lacked a jobs agenda, Patrick from Cantor’s office remembered that Levin had referred to a bipartisan free trade bill as a "jobs bill" during a floor debate. This became email and Twitter hay in a matter of 15 minutes.
"We scan for statements all day," Patrick said.
On the night of Obama’s big jobs speech before Congress last month, House Republicans blogged, tweeted and emailed before, during and right after the speech. They picked apart numbers, discredited programs and offered areas of compromise, all with links. It created an instant echo chamber, even though it was basically House Republicans talking among themselves at first.
But the goal and hope is that a message will be picked up and re-tweeted by influential reporters, bloggers or the Drudge Report.
Staff members tend to have the trust of their bosses to be as professional as they would be in a news release; many of those bosses have their staff members send out Twitter messages under their handle.
Still, Obama has more than 10 million Twitter followers, and his staff, like the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, are known to hit back on Twitter; Carney’s fight with Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner, over Obama’s jobs plan became the subject of a nightly news report.
Further, left-leaning organizations like Moveon.org and Think Progress are widely viewed, even among Republicans, as surpassing their conservative counterparts on the new media playing field.
As the 2012 campaign heats up, policy fights that used to play out in old-school direct mailings and television advertisements are likely to migrate to Twitter.
"This is the first time that both parties have people on staff who are specifically focused on social media and willing to deploy and use it." Rasiej, of Personal Democracy Media, said. "It won’t be tanks against the cavalry this time. Both sides have tanks, both sides have fighter jets and both sides may have nuclear bombs."