The twists and turns of the Republican presidential campaign have been practically made for — and watched on — live television. And despite predictions of new media tools like Twitter and Facebook dominating election coverage, Americans are continuing to rely on an old standby: cable TV.
After coming in second in the Nevada caucuses, Newt Gingrich assured reporters that national news exposure would be a surefire remedy for catching up with Mitt Romney.
"I actually think we're a national system in terms of information flow. So I think if I'm on [Fox News'] Hannity, or if I happen to be in The Associated Press ... or if I'm one of the networks or even in the New York Times, that in fact it reaches the whole country," Gingrich said.
Indeed, a survey of more than 1,500 people by the Pew Research Center shows that more than one-third of Americans are leaning on cable channels for election news — just as many as in past years — while relying less on local television stations, newspapers and the national networks.
And the new media kids on the block? The media may be fixated on them, says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, but the public is not.
"Social media has been much heralded but relatively little used by average voters and average citizens," he says.
According to the Pew study, only 2 percent of people sought election news from Twitter, 3 percent from YouTube and 6 percent from Facebook.
"These numbers are very modest given all that we've heard about the impact of social networks on this campaign," Kohut says.
General voter interest is down from 2008, in no small part because only one party has a competitive race this time. As younger voters skew Democratic, that may also have dampened the relative reliance on emerging social media platforms by those voters who are engaged. Cable news audiences are, on average, a lot older — in their late 50s and 60s, according to past estimates from Nielsen Media Research.
Obama campaign officials say their social media strategy is to mobilize supporters, engage donors and inspire backers to get the message out to other voters. In other words, it's narrowcasting. Even in the age of the right/left split of cable with Fox News and MSNBC, television news channels reach a lot of people who don't back a specific candidate and are looking for more information.
Digital media professionals argue that traditional measures like the Pew study are missing the point.
Amy Webb, CEO of the Webbmedia Group, says social media users are providing a growing body of information about voter preferences.
"What do women who shop at a grocery store on Sunday afternoons instead of Saturday mornings — who also happen to be executives and live in Chicago — think?" Webb says. "We can get really, really targeted now. And as crazy as all of this may seem, we are the ones providing all of this data."
Media critic William Powers recently joined the Boston-based digital media company Bluefin Labs to help assess the political conversations unfolding online. The 2012 campaign may not be decided by social media, Powers says, but those tools offer a wealth of information about the national mood.
"American presidential campaigns still occur largely on television — on the old medium," Powers says. "That's where the narrative takes place. And all this explosion on Twitter is largely people reacting to televised events."
Powers says Bluefin, founded by an MIT linguistics professor, is using a sophisticated algorithm to gauge how people react to political rhetoric by sorting through tweets in real time.
"We're in a position to make sense of the context," Powers says. "The context is debates and ads, and all these TV events that are going to make up much of the campaign. And Twitter is where the public is talking back to the TV."
Powers calls Twitter a focus group in the wild — hundreds of thousands of tweets, offering raw responses to each debate or speech, as seen on cable TV.
It is a layered conception of old and new media coexisting — like modern apartment buildings standing amid the ancient ruins in Rome.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Our political editor Ron Elving has sent over a few of the numbers from last night. Missouri's statewide primary brought out less than 6 percent of the voting age population.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The caucuses in Minnesota had just over 1 percent participating.
MONTAGNE: And in Colorado, fewer than 2 percent of people of voting age turned out for those caucuses.
INSKEEP: And as we said, no delegates were awarded last night. But Santorum - whose campaign has often highlighted social issues - did well after a series of days in which social issues like contraception were back in the news.
MONTAGNE: And binding or not, the suspense leading up to Santorum's victories was another made-for-TV moment. This election season has provided plenty of riveting turns.
And despite predictions that online offerings would dominate the election coverage, NPR's David Folkenflik reports this year, people are relying far more on cable.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: On Saturday night, after another tough outing - this time in Nevada - Newt Gingrich assured reporters he had a sure-fire remedy for catching up with Mitt Romney.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
NEWT GINGRICH: And one of the things that some of you, as you keep score, don't quite follow me on is I actually think we're a national system in terms of information flow. So I think if, you know, I'm on "Hannity," or if I happen to be in the Associated Press, to take an example, or I'm on one of the networks or even in The New York Times, that, in fact, it reaches the whole country.
FOLKENFLIK: Hannity being Fox News' Sean Hannity. But Gingrich won't be terribly picky. Last night, it was CNN. So, hey, no worries about that whole primary vote thing.
JONATHAN WALD: If money is the lifeblood of politics, cable television is the lifeblood of each of the candidates. Cable news is where people go to get their political and other information.
FOLKENFLIK: Jonathan Wald is executive producer of "Piers Morgan Tonight" on CNN.
WALD: This cycle is more intense and compressed, if that's the right word. More seems to happen in a concentrated period of time, especially around the debates, which have been a huge high water mark on cable each time out.
FOLKENFLIK: Indeed. And Americans are taking note. That's to say, according a survey of more than 1,500 people by the Pew Research Center, more than a third of us are leaning on cable channels for election news - every bit as many as in past years, even as we rely appreciably less than we used to on local TV stations, on newspapers, and on networks. And the new media kids on the block? Pew Center President Andrew Kohut says they're not there yet.
ANDREW KOHUT: Social media has been much-heralded, but relatively little used by average voters and average citizens.
FOLKENFLIK: Kohut argues the media may be fixated on them, but the public isn't. Only 2 percent of people sought election news from Twitter Pew found, 3 percent from You Tube, and 6 percent from Facebook.
KOHUT: These numbers are very modest, given all that we've heard about the impact of social networks on this campaign.
FOLKENFLIK: All that talk about Facebookistan and its hundreds of millions of residents worldwide, the Pew study would seem to provide a bracing dose of skepticism to that. But digital media professionals say traditional measures are missing the point. Amy Webb is CEO of the WebbMedia Group.
AMY WEBB: What do women who shop at a grocery store on Sunday afternoons instead of Saturday mornings - who also happen to be executives and live in Chicago - think? I mean, we can get really, really targeted now. And as crazy as all of this may seem, we are the ones providing this data. It's us.
FOLKENFLIK: Media critic William Powers recently joined a Boston digital media company called Bluefin to help assess the political conversation unfolding online.
WILLIAM POWERS: We're in a position to make sense of the context - you know, the context is debates and ads and all these TV events that are going to make up much of the campaign. And Twitter is where the public is talking back to the TV.
FOLKENFLIK: Power says Bluefin, a firm founded by an MIT linguistics professor, is using a sophisticated algorithm to gauge how people react to political rhetoric by sorting through tweets in real time.
POWERS: Although people are talking about how this is the presidential campaign that's going to be decided by social media, in fact, if you step back, American presidential campaigns still occur largely on television, on the old medium. You know, that's where the narrative takes place. And all this explosion on Twitter is largely people reacting to televised events.
FOLKENFLIK: Powers calls Twitter a focus group in the wild, with hundreds of thousands of tweets responding to each debate or speech, as seen on cable TV. It is a layered conception of media, old and new, coexisting, like modern apartment buildings standing amidst the ancient ruins in Rome.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: We're glad you're getting much of your political news from MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. And by the way, you can also follow us on Twitter @MORNINGEDITION and @nprinskeep. That's the address of our apartment building amid the ancient ruins, I guess. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.