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18. Case Study: U.S. Politicians

[first edit – KEG – 27 August – we need to add your screen captures]

“It’s a case of Twittering while Rome burns,” claimed Dana Milbank, a Washington Post columnist, in his article about Congress’s use of Twitter during Barack Obama’s February 2009 address to a Joint Session of Congress.  “They whipped out their BlackBerrys and began sending text messages like high school kids bored in math class.”[1]

Milbank’s criticism of elected officials using Twitter is common, but reactionary.

The reality is that successful politicians rely on good communication to control their political narrative.  To do this, they have to understand the various media used to reach their audiences.  John F. Kennedy was successful with television in his campaign against Richard Nixon, while before him FDR commanded radio.

In the 2008 presidential election, many have argued that Barack Obama took the lead in the Democratic nomination race through smart use of social media including Facebook, Twitter, and In a New York Times article, Ranjit Mathoda claimed:

… Senator Barack Obama understood that you could use the Web to lower the cost of building a political brand, create a sense of connection and engagement, and dispense with the command and control method of governing to allow people to self-organize to do the work.[2]

Although it is important for elected officials to master the new medium we know as the social web, there is hesitation to fully adopt any new technology. The reluctance might be due to stubbornness or the very real fear of posting an inappropriate Tweet that draws criticism or sinks a campaign.  The fear of posting an inappropriate Tweet is legitimate.  For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger posted a Tweet about a video he posted which depicted him holding a giant knife while talking about budget cuts. [And …? … what happened?[3]

As the social web becomes more predominant in our society, politicians will be forced to understand how to communicate in this space it if they want to be viable in the political arena.  This chapter develops best practices for politicians on Twitter, providing assistance in both campaign communication and in crafting public policy.

Why This Sector?

The audience for a politician is extremely broad; constituents span all adult demographics.

For most politicians, however, the important demographic is generally the older citizen, as they are far more likely to vote than younger constituents.[4] Many social networks are brushed off as places for the younger generation, including the under-18-non-voter. However, Twitter is becoming a place to connect with older demographics.  According to a March 2009, PEW study, the median age of a Twitter user was 31, while Myspace and Facebook sat at 27 and 26 years of age, respectively.[5] Moreover, as of the writing of this chapter, the 35-49 year old age group boasts a Quantcast index rating of 109, which means internet users in that age range are more likely to be on Twitter than elsewhere.[6] These statistics make Twitter particularly important for politicians to engage in.

Twitter provides elected officials the opportunity to not only communicate their messages in a unique way but to also involve constituents in the political process.  If used correctly, Twitter can better engage citizens in the political process, provide elected officials with information they wouldn’t have been able to find otherwise, and increase transparency in government.

This chapter will help inform politicians looking to start using Twitter by demonstrating best practices including:

  • How to use Twitter to engage in conversation
  • How to integrate Twitter into other social media platforms
  • How to effectively use @ replies and DMs
  • How to strategically use hashtags


The Twitter aggregators TweetCongress and GovTwit are effective tools for finding politicians and government agencies on Twitter.

TweetCongress provides information about the most active, most conversational, most political and most followed politicians.  Trending topics, photos and videos are also available, along with an aggregated stream of all politicians on Twitter. For politicians just starting to use Twitter, I highly recommend using TweetCongress to listen and get an idea of what other politicians are saying and doing on Twitter.

GovTwit is a service similar to TweetCongress, but aggregates government agencies instead of individual members of congress.

The following profiles are highlighted in this chapter due to their strengths in the specific areas:

Thomas Castillo (@thomascastillo) – Thomas Castillo is a Democratic candidate for  Illinois Lt. Governor. His profile was chosen because of his exemplary integration of Twitter into all aspects of his social media campaign.

Mike McGinn (@mcginnformayor) – Mike McGinn is a candidate for Seattle Mayor. McgGinn has used Twitter and other social media sites to propel himself from being a relative unknown in the mayoral race to a surprising first place finish in the 18 August 2009 Democratic primary. The McGinn campaign uses Twitter to build excitement.

Claire McCaskill (@clairecmc) – Claire McCaskill is a Democratic U.S. Senator from Missouri.  She has been active on Twitter since January 2009 and demonstrates how to use human voice in her tweets.  She also is very transparent and reads all tweets that mention her.

Dana Rohrabacher (@danarohrabacher) – Dana Rohrabacher is a Republican U.S. Congressman representing California’s 46th Congressional District; he was a speechwriter for President Reagan.  Rohrbacher’s Twitter profile is particularly interesting due to his extensive usage of @ replies; according to TweetCongress, 91% of his Tweets are @ replies.

Arnold Schwarzenegger (@schwarzenegger) – Arnold Schwarzenegger is the Republican Governor of California. He is very active on Twitter, with almost a million followers, and demonstrates a knack for engaging in conversation. He has recently received attention for initiating the hashtag #myidea4CA, which received over 1,000 replies in the first hour after he announced it. [7]

How Is Twitter Used In This Sector?

This sector primarily uses Twitter as a broadcasting tool rather than as a conversation tool, although some politicians are . Politicians are experimenting with ways to integrate Twitter into other social web technologies, such as video and chat.

For example, big name, national politicians such as Barack Obama and Sarah Palin do not use @ replies to engage in conversation.  John Boehner, the Republican Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, is one of the most active Congressmen on Twitter, averaging 3.8 Tweets each day. [8] Despite his frequent posting, he has not used a single @ reply in any his Tweets, according to TweetCongress at the time of this writing.

Although there is a lack of Twitter conversation, politicians are experimenting with other ways to use Twitter to reach traditional audiences. For example, Mike McGinn, Democratic candidate in the Seattle Mayoral race, finds Twitter a valuable way to reach out to the media. Liz Birkholz, the head Twitter manager on the campaign, explains:

Twitter is a great way for news media to know where Mike is going to be at. We Tweet out where [MgGinn] is going to be 24 hours in advance for the media, and repeat an hour before he heads out.

Innovation may mean integration. Thomas Castillo, Democratic candidate for Illinois Lt. Governor, has integrated Twitter into many aspects of his campaign. According to Philip Nowak, Castillo’s social media manager:

Twitter is a critical component of our social media campaign strategy as it allows us to interact with people in real time… It’s really all about engagement. Thomas tweets from the heart. There’s no hidden agenda. It’s all out there.

And in the Castillo campaign, everyone is a communicator:

Everyone on the campaign has to use social media. Everyone has to set up a Twitter and Facebook account. We are actually in the middle of creating a social media campaign handbook called Tribe Castillo, which will document step-by-step how volunteers, campaign staff and supporters can use social media to spread the word [about the campaign].

[How is this different from traditional campaigns?]

The Castillo campaign has also consciously incorporated Twitter into other aspects of their social media campaign. For example, every Tuesday the campaign hosts CastilloChat, a no-holds-barred video conversation between Castillo, Nowak, and whomever else logs on. When participants log in, they are able to Tweet their entrance, which provides awareness to their followers. Conference attendees have the ability to tweet their chat comments as well, providing their followers a glimpse into Castillo’s conversation. That glimpse just might trigger a new conversation on Twitter.

Outreach in the digital space is critical, but the Castillo campaign has also found value in engaging social media users face-to-face through Tweet-ups:

We have been trying to connect with the social media power users online as well as offline by attending as many Tweetups as possible in and around Chicagoland.  We attend every Social Media Club Chicago event and just recently personally met Adam Hirsch, the COO of Mashable and Brett Petersel, Events Director at Mashable at the Hyatt Mashable Chicago Tweetup.

While it may seem a little odd to follow a politician on Twitter (don’t we hear enough of them on TV?), many politicians have thousands of followers. This audience is natural-made for sentiment analysis. Bikholz explains:

People that follow us are genuinely interested in learning about Mike. Many are media interested in knowing what his next move it. It’s breaking news – information flows much quicker through Twitter … We turn to Twitter for the most up-to-date information, especially polling data.

There does not yet seem to be an established policy for how politicians determine when to follow others. Some politicians, such as Claire McCaskill, are only following one person. Others follow back anyone that follows them, including the Obama and Castillo campaigns. These policies communicate two different messages. By not following, McCaskill does not create an expectation that she will read or respond to followers, and yet she does reply. By following, the Obama campaign implied that it would read and respond; yet it did not.

The Castillo campaign replies “to every @thomascastillo or DM that is not spam,” Nowak says. This TweetStats analysis from 27 August 2009 shows that about 12 percent of @thomascastillo Tweets are @replies:

TweetStats Analysis - 27 August 2009

TweetStats Analysis - 27 August 2009

Due to modern Twitter tools such as Tweet Deck, conversations can be tracked based on key words and hashtags.  Claire McCaskill has insisted many times on Twitter that she reads every mention of @clairemc. How might she do that?

Unlocking the Power of Twitter Search With Hashtags

McCaskill can easily use Twitter Search to find all tweets that mention @clairmc or even “Claire McCaskill” or “Sen. McCaskill.” However, this is not the only way to utilize search.

Hashtags are keywords, phrases or abbreviations that are marked with the pound sign (#). By identifying a tweet with a hashtag, the author provides meta-information about that tweet; it becomes associated with other tweets of a similar nature.

The McGinn campaign recently created the hashtag #totv (tweet out the vote) as a way to encourage people to vote in the August Democratic primary.  According to Birkholz, hashtags have become a a key part of their campaign:

Hashtags are important to use at Legislative district endorsement meetings.  Members of legislative districts set up a hashtag which two or three different candidates will use to have conversations during the meeting. Candidates not using the hashtags are missing out on the conversation.

Conservative politicians like Dana Rohrabacher have taken advantage of the hashtag #tcot, which is an abbreviation for “top conservatives on Twitter.” This hashtag has become mainstream enough that blogs like tcotreport .com post the stream on their front page.  By using this hashtag, Rohrabacher is able to communicate with other conservatives that aren’t following him directly and join larger conversations about conservative issues.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has also started using hashtags.  On 9 June 2009, Governor Schwarzenegger sent out the following tweet:

June Tweet Announcing #myidea4CA

June Tweet Announcing #myidea4CA

Within an hour, more than 1000 Twitter users had posted using the hashtag. While this might look like a gimmick, there is evidence Governor Schwarzenegger is listening. When asked about how these ideas would be implemented in an interview with, Schwarzenegger answered [7]:

There are many different types of ideas and they are all great places to begin discussions on how to move California forward. The conversation surrounding these ideas will add value and allow us to see all sides of an issue and identify new ways to approach the situation. When I see a good idea that we can use, I won’t need a set of steps to move on it; we’ll roll it out immediately.

Schwarzenegger intends to give credit to these ideas.

…What is so wonderful about Twitter is that it is a direct dialog with people. I’ll take this opportunity here to thank one more time @RyanStothard for his suggestion to me to sign car visors for our car garage sale. You can see me signing those car sun visors in photos I’ve posted through Twitter.

Best Practices

The following Tweets exemplify best practices from politicians (because …)

Share your opinions about current issues:
Twitter offers politicians an opportunity to clearly state their opinions on issues.  With so many competing voices in politics, having a clear record of your positions is valuable to both your constituents and your campaign.

Updates on Events:
Event updates are useful for both followers and the press.  News breaks faster on Twitter than main stream media and many Twitter users are looking for up-to-date information on politicians that they may not find elsewhere:[9]

Explore Grey Areas:

Communications in politics is often very black – and- white.  Grey areas are often seen as a sign of weakness or the product of a “flip-flopper.”  Twitter, even with the 140 character limit, provides an opportunity for politicians explain the subtleties of their beliefs.  Take the following Tweets for example:

Be Human!
Many politicians struggle to break down the walls of political speak and actually act human.  Senator Claire McCaskill does a fantastic job of showing her human side:

Take Advantage of Hashtags:
The number of @ replies going to politicians can become overwhelming.  Using hashtags allows politicians to more easily have conversations with users and helps them listen to what the Twitter community is talking about.  Hashtags are also a great way for Twitter users to talk to politicians.

Case Studies: Castillo and McCaskill:
The following case studies take an in depth look at Thomas Castillo and Claire McCaskill’s profiles to highlight their strengths and weaknesses.  Analysis was done over the last 100 Tweets from each respective profile.

Thomas Castillo
Thomas Castillo is running for Lieutenant Governor of Illinois; the election is in 2010. By the number and quality of Tweets, coupled with his presence on other social networks, it is clear Castillo is very comfortable with social media.

Tweets are a mix of status updates, links to information Castillo finds valuable, opinions, and the occasional @ reply.  Tone is generally personal and inviting.  Castillo Tweets quite a bit – almost 100 times in the past week.

The chart below shows how many Tweets Thomas Castillo has posted each day over the last month (July 25-August 25):

Replies – 8/100 – Most of Castillo’s replies are personal, yet have enough context to understand the conversation.  It would be nice to see more replies, but it is possible that since the campaign is just starting, there aren’t as many people to interact with yet.  He also could be responding with DMs rather than @ replies.

ReTweets – 19/100 – Castillo retweets things he finds interested, including news and inspirational quotes.  On occasion he adds some personal commentary.

Hashtags – 3/100 – Castillo’s only use of hashtags are in RTs.  I think this is a missed opportunity to engage in conversations happening in Twitter.

Narrative Summary

Castillo’s high Tweet rate is positive, and I like that he is retweeting quite a few posts. However, I don’t think he is engaging enough in conversation to earn an A grade for Tweets.  He certainly does respond to people, and I know from personal experience his team will DM you if you ask them a question, but I think they could do more to get involved with hashtags and @ replies.

I suggest using hashtags to seek out other conversations that are happening about issues he is most concerned with.  He has done a great job of working with his own hashtags, but there is value to be gained from interacting with others.

Claire McCaskill
Claire McCaskill is a Democratic U.S. Senator from Missouri.  She has been active on Twitter since January 2009 and uses a human voice in her Tweets. She reads all Tweets that mention her.

The chart below shows how many Tweets Thomas Castillo has posted each day over the last month (July 25 – August 25):

Replies – 15/100 – Claire McCaskill does a good job of replying to citizens in a very reasonable tone.  Rather than lower the level of public discourse, she attempts to keep things as civil as possible.

ReTweets – 0/100 – McCaskill doesn’t retweet very often.

Hashtags – 3/100 – The hashtag used most by McCaskill is #MO, which is the hashtag for Missouri.  She has only used it a few times, however, so she isn’t really having conversations using it.

Narrative summary
Most of Claire McCaskill’s conversations occur through @ replies.  I believe the true strength of Claire McCaskill on Twitter is her human voice and her honesty.  She feels more real than most other politicians on Twitter.

Claire McCaskill does a great job of using a human voice on Twitter; her tweets are clearly written by her, not staff. She also is very civil in her engagement and mixes in a great blend of personal insights with her formal business.

Her profile is the weakest link in her Twitter presence. On the plus side, her avatar consists of an easily identifiable close-up of herself, which is perfect. However, the background image — a road sign with the word “Missouri” — tiles; that is, it repeats itself, marching across and down the page, creating visual noise in the process. In addition, her profile lacks both a bio and a link, which is a missed opportunity to position herself on issues and link back to either her website or her campaign website.


Social media is quickly becoming a necessary part of every politician’s communication strategy.  As I’ve demonstrated in this chapter, some politicians have found innovative ways to use Twitter to better engage their constituencies.  Whether they are talking to them directly, learning from them, or reporting news that wouldn’t get out otherwise, it is clear their use of the medium is adding value to the citizens they are engaging with.

Key Lessons:

  • Most politicians profiled are using Twitter as a broadcast tool rather than a conversation tool.
  • Twitter provides politicians the ability to speak to constituents directly
  • Use hashtags to both listen and express opinions
  • Governor Schwarzenegger is actually listening to constituents and acting through Twitter.  Used this way, Twitter may prove to be a very powerful tool.
  • Don’t be afraid to be honest – Politicians don’t always have the freedom to be honest and open.  Twitter users highly value openness.  Take advantage of it!

End Notes:


[1] Milbank, Dana.  The Washington Post. Feb 25 2009.

[2] Carr, David.  The New York Times.  9 Nov 2009.

[3] Associated Press.  July 22 2009.

[4] Edwards, Tom. U.S. Census Bureau News. July 20 2009.

[5] Morgan, Jacob.  Jacob Morgan Social Media, Lifestyle, and Treveling.  Mar 5 2009.

[6] Quantcast.  Aug 23 2009. [Jon – this isn’t sufficient citation – and “6” is used a lot for different things]

[7]Van Grove, Jennifer.  Mashable.  Aug 25 2009.


[9] AccuraCast. Jul 31 2008.


Chapter in PDF FormatChapter in .docx Format


Tweets Analyzed



  1. @AKGovSarahPalin
  2. @BarackObama
  3. @clairmc
  4. @danarohrabacher
  5. @johnculberson
  6. @schwarzenegger
  7. @simsron
  8. @mcginnformayor
  9. @senjohnmccain
  10. @thomascastillo


  1. Thomas Castillo Campaign
  2. McGinn Campaign


snpic Jon Hickey is a recent graduate of the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.  His  interest  in public policy and social media led him to the Master’s of Communication in Digital Media program at the Univserity of Washington.  His studies are focusing on how politicians, government agencies, and non-profits can use social media to better communicate, collaborate, and engage with the public to achieve their goals.

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