Politics heats up social media

The Courier Post
December 5, 2010
By Jane Roh

Gov. Chris Christie continues to pwn* the opposition with his skillful use of social media.

If you don’t know what that sentence means, you’re probably as out of the loop as his foes appear to be. (*Internet slang for “own” or “dominate.”)

Democrats here complain that folks outside the state who gaze lovingly on each new YouTube video of Christie yelling at political nemeses are only getting half the picture, if that. Problem is, Democrats either won’t or aren’t able to return in kind.

Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, D-Gloucester, does not Tweet. Neither does Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver. The most prolific Tweeter in the tri-county delegation is Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, D-Gloucester (@moriartyp), followed by GOP district mate Domenick DiCicco (@DiCiccoNJ).

Most of the South Jersey delegation does not appear to be on Twitter. Camden County (@camdencountynj) Tweets press releases and announcements but Burlington (@BurlCo) and Gloucester do not. Camden County Communications Director Joyce Gabriel (@joy521) has an account but does not Tweet.

Up North, however, Democrats engage online with bite. Newark Councilman Ronald C. Rice Jr. made headlines again this month for critical, and arguably impolitic, remarks about the governor.

“Is our Governor on crack? No seriously, is he smoking or drinking something that is illegal or at least detrimental to one’s health?” Rice fumed about the prospect that Christie might use some of a $100 million education grant from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to plugging a state aid gap.

Last year, ahead of a failed lame duck vote on marriage equality, Rice accused Sweeney of being a coward via Twitter: “I am here n AC w/ Sen Sweeney & if/when I c him, I am going 2 give him a piece of my mind on the issue of marriage equality . . .”

Though he later took pains to say he has great respect for the Gloucester Democrat, Rice to this day remains unapologetic about using social media to hold fellow politicians to account.

He suggested misunderstanding about his remarks were largely generational. He urged fellow Democrats to get more aggressive about combating Christie’s messaging operation.

“I’m glad our leadership does not go tit for tat, but I am praying and hoping toward organizing a real opposition to Governor Christie’s agenda,” Rice said.

Studies have shown Republicans have taken to Twitter more vigorously than Democrats — in part because of their minority status following the unpopular Bush administration.

“The 2008 election was a huge wake-up call to Republicans across the country. The approach they had been taking in communicating and messaging was just not working,” said Mindy Finn, partner at Washington, D.C.-based GOP consultancy Engage.

While online innovation helped spur President Barack Obama’s history-making election, Republicans have since caught up and in some cases surpassed Democrats’ efforts.

“We did a study back in spring where we looked specifically at Senate candidates across the social media spectrum, and found Republicans were more digitally savvy than Democrats,” said Danielle Bailey of L2, a digital media think tank.

Following the logic that underdogs have more urgency to get their message out, Democrats could soon retake the mantle of social media kings. But other motives might be afoot for engaging friends and critics online with frequency.

Take Newark Mayor Cory Booker. He is viewed as a rising star by Democrats nationally and is frequently talked up for a gubernatorial run.

“Cory Booker has over 1 million Twitter followers. Obviously he’s talking to more people than just those in Newark,” said Bailey.

Call it a frivolous use of government time but experts say Booker’s use of social media is anything but.

“He’s responding to minor things such as a pothole in a neighborhood to more major things. He’s not only responding but also eliciting ideas from constituents,” said Bailey.

By contrast, the mayor of Camden has a Twitter account but does not Tweet. A spokesman for Mayor Dana Redd (@DanaRedd) said she was just as accessible as Booker but preferred Facebook.

“She posts what’s going on, what she’s doing, what she’s thinking,” said Robert Corrales. “Constituents post on her site and relay messages privately. All of them get addressed.”

Finn called any politcian’s decision not to make the most of social media “a huge missed opportunity.”

Politicians win extra points for engaging critics as well. Joshua Henne, a former aide to former Gov. James E. McGreevey who runs the Democratic consultancy White Horse Strategies, frequently tussles with Christie on Twitter.

On Friday: “@GovChristie if days of Corzine overspending r over & NJ’s broke, how can u have funds to give $900mil tax cut to wealthiest 63k taxpayers”

“@JoshuaHenne As a Dem operative u know that Inc tax surcharge was permitted 2 lapse by Corzine& Dem leg BEFORE I became Gov. Complain 2 them”

“Chris Christie as governor is used to talking at people,” Henne said in an interview. “Twitter is a way for folks to directly challenge and question Christie.”

But Henne also saw a downside to relying on social media to buffer a politicians’ profile. While Christie’s political star shines nationally, real issues in New Jersey are not being addressed, he said.

In February, Christie hired an aide to run his social media operation at an annual salary of $60,000. Christie does do some Tweeting himself — which has earned him grudging respect among his critics.