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Trump tweets monopolize media attention as 2020 Dems face messaging challenges

President Donald Trump speaks during an event where he congratulated astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch as they conduct the first all-female spacewalk, from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Friday, Oct. 18, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during an event where he congratulated astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch as they conduct the first all-female spacewalk, from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Friday, Oct. 18, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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President Donald Trump set off a social media firestorm Tuesday by equating the impeachment process he is facing to “a lynching” on Twitter, drawing swift condemnation from many of the Democrats running for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination and demonstrating how easily he can hijack the political world’s attention in fewer than 280 characters.

“So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here - a lynching,” Trump tweeted.

A White House spokesman later insisted the president was not comparing himself to a lynching victim, but Democratic candidates hammered him on Twitter for language likening the constitutional process of impeachment to grave racial injustices of the past.

“Lynching is a reprehensible stain on this nation's history, as is this President. We'll never erase the pain and trauma of lynching, and to invoke that torture to whitewash your own corruption is disgraceful,” tweeted Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.

“Lynching is an act of terror used to uphold white supremacy. Try again,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

“Delete this immediately,” responded Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Col.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called the president’s tweet “beyond disgraceful,” billionaire Tom Steyer said it was “disgusting,” and Miramar, Fla. Mayor Wayne Messam dismissed it as “despicable and race baiting at its worst!”

It was a familiar sequence of events that will likely become even more common in the months ahead: President Trump fires off an incendiary tweet, Democrats spend much of the day expressing outrage, and whatever else was on their agenda gets overshadowed. Democratic nominee Secretary Hillary Clinton’s campaign often got trapped in that cycle during the 2016 race, unable to draw attention to its priorities because all eyes were on Trump’s Twitter feed.

“They can avoid this by not making all of their posts about President Trump,” said Jason Mollica, a former public relations professional and a lecturer at American University. “For the most part, the current Democratic field of candidates have balanced messages with their agendas and potential policies.”

Republicans struggled with the same challenge during the 2016 primaries, and the former digital director for Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, Republican digital strategist Eric Wilson, said candidates may be better off going with the current than fighting against it.

“Your agenda is set by what the president is tweeting about,” Wilson said. “I think the best a campaign can hope for is to steer the conversation to topics of interest to them and get the president to play on their turf.”

According to Brian Ott, author of “The Twitter President: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage” and a professor at Texas Tech University, part of the problem for Democrats is that the media regularly amplifies Trump’s shocking tweets, even when reporters are just quoting him to criticize him.

“It is going to be very, very difficult for the Democrats to compete on social media with the current president,” Ott said. “The reason has less to do with those platforms or the candidates than it has to do with how the media covers this.”

Democratic candidates have had varying degrees of success with tweets intended to announce policies, respond to breaking news developments, or mock President Trump. None of the 19 current candidates for the nomination come close to Trump’s 66 million followers—Sen. Bernie Sanders tops the list with nearly 10 million—but some have drawn outsized media attention with a well-placed quip or viral video.

A tweet by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, in response to comments made by Clinton suggesting she is a “Russian asset” in which she called the former secretary of state “the queen of warmongers” has helped Gabbard gain more than 100,000 new Twitter followers since Friday. Booker got 22,000 retweets with his reaction to her post, which was just a gif of himself giving another candidate side-eye during a debate.

Earlier this month, Sen. Harris scored 100,000 retweets when she fired back at a tweet by Donald Trump Jr. that criticized her laugh, writing, “You wouldn’t know a joke if one raised you.” Harris has also pressed a quixotic campaign to convince Twitter to suspend or ban Trump for violating its content policies, leading the company to issue a statement last week clarifying when it would be willing to suspend a world leader.

According to Wilson, the most effective campaigns on Twitter feature the candidate tweeting in their own voice and interacting with supporters. Less successful are the ones that transparently try to copy Trump or a popular Democrat like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who sometimes speaks casually to her followers while cooking in her kitchen.

“It’s not about being in the kitchen,” he said. “It’s about connecting with people authentically, being honest with them, and having a two-way dialogue.”

Wilson noted former Rep. Beto O’Rourke wielded his Twitter account powerfully during his 2018 Senate run, but he has so far had less impact in the presidential race. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has risen to the top of the 2020 field in part through strong use of the Twitter platform, but other candidates have stumbled.

“Joe Biden really struggles with Twitter and it’s clear it’s not his voice,” Wilson said.

Some of the lesser-known contenders have also resonated on Twitter. Mollica pointed to South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and businessman Andrew Yang as candidates who have communicated their messages well in tweets.

“[Buttigieg] is not talking at people,” he said. “He’s talking with them and to them, whether it is a video or a simple post.”

Pundits and fellow Democrats have cautioned candidates not to presume their social media following is representative of what the party’s broader voter base wants. Democrats who engage with political issues on Twitter are often more progressive and more activist than the moderate voters the nominee will need to win over in the race against Trump.

In an op-ed published before the second Democratic primary debate in July, former Chicago Mayor and Obama aide Rahm Emanuel accused candidates of “chasing plaudits on Twitter” and alienating swing voters with extreme ideas.

“Before our party promises health care coverage to undocumented immigrants — a position not even Ted Kennedy took — let’s help the more than 30 million Americans who are a single illness away from financial ruin," Emanuel wrote.

Although extreme rhetoric playing to his base is at the core of Trump’s Twitter style, Ott said Democrats would be making a mistake if they attempt to do the same.

“Unless someone is willing to behave like Donald Trump on Twitter, they’re not going to get the same benefits he gets,” he said. “The smarter play for Democrats is to try to win the center, and far-left rhetoric on Twitter is not helping them.”

According to Mollica, candidates must be careful with their words on Twitter as they communicate with supporters because missteps can be costly.

“Twitter is a volatile platform that can change the way people view a candidate,” he said. “Today’s favorite could be tomorrow’s foe.”

Twitter often seems ubiquitous in Washington, but most Americans do not even use the platform. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in early 2019 found only 22% of U.S. adults are on Twitter, and less than one-fifth of American users follow President Trump’s account.

Still, Twitter can be a very effective tool for swaying those who do follow political leaders. According to John Parmalee, co-author of “Politics and the Twitter Revolution,” more than 60% of political Twitter users have taken actions based on tweets and a similar percentage said they retweet leaders. Users considered tweets from political leaders as influential on their political views as their family members.

“Followers of political leaders on Twitter want to be more than mere receivers of information. They have a genuine desire to engage politically with leaders and other politically interested individuals,” Parmalee said.

Wilson stressed that Twitter is not real life. The platform primarily helps candidates communicate to a narrow but important audience of influencers and media elites. As evidenced by the campaigns’ allocation of advertising dollars, Facebook is where most of the voters they want to reach are.

“Inside the Washington beltway, people live and breathe Donald Trump tweets every hour, but that’s really not what’s going on out in the rest of the country,” he said.

Trump’s Twitter use has only escalated since the impeachment inquiry began. While it is his preferred and possibly his most effective communication medium, polls suggest his reliance on the platform carries risks as well.

A Politico/Morning Consult survey released in May found 70% of voters believe Trump tweets too much, and 46% of respondents said it would hurt his reelection prospects. According to the poll, less than 20% of voters consider Trump’s Twitter use a good thing, while 60% say it is a bad thing and more than half say it hurts the presidency and America’s standing in the world.

Morning Consult polls conducted in 2017 and 2018 also showed around 70% of voters felt Trump tweeted too much. In 2018, nearly half of respondents predicted his Twitter use would hurt Republicans in the midterm elections and only 17% thought it would help.

Some Democrats believe targeting Trump’s Twitter use could help their nominee in 2020. A survey commissioned in August by the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund found 53% of voters believe Trump has been ineffective in advancing his legislative priorities and keeping campaign promises because he is “distracted by other unimportant priorities like petty disagreements and Twitter.”

According to The Daily Beast, the CAP Action Fund tested several different anti-Trump messages and the claim that he is too focused on Twitter to do his job was the only one that consistently swayed voters toward Democrats. The organization has since set up a tool that tracks Trump’s tweets about various policy issues compared to his much more frequent posts about fake news, witch hunts, and other grievances.

If there is a danger there, experts say the benefits for the president far outweigh it. An analysis by tracking firm mediaQuant estimated Trump generated $5 billion in free media for his campaign in 2016—more than double the coverage Clinton got—and his tweets helped drive that coverage.

“One hundred percent, it’s a net positive for him,” Ott said, and he does not expect that to change. “For the first time in history, we have a U.S. president who never transitioned from campaign rhetoric to the rhetoric of governing.”

Wilson believes those polls are more reflective of general concerns about norms and decorum than Trump’s Twitter use itself. Despite palpable frustration from many voters and grumblings from some Republicans on Capitol Hill, the platform remains a uniquely powerful tool to broadcast the White House’s unfiltered message to an audience of millions, and it is one Trump’s opponents have not yet figured out how to counter.

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“The president’s tweets are a superpower,” Wilson said. “He shouldn’t give that up. It’s a very powerful tool to be able to shape the conversation, shape the landscape of our political debate.”

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