Richmond, Va. -- The Romney campaign has managed to both bury the headline and make the lead.
Saturday morning is hardly primetime in the news business -- viewership is down, internet traffic is low, radios are turned off. Yet the Romney campaign has demonstrated an affinity for timing the release of their headlines to Saturday mornings: last weekend it was the announcement of Paul Ryan as running mate, and this weekend it will be Ryan's highly anticipated debut in the crucial swing state of Florida, where the House Budget Committee Chairman will address the controversial subject of Medicare reform with senior citizens at The Villages retirement community. The speech is so important that Ryan's 78-year-old mother Betty Douglas will also be there, if only to reinforce the message of her son's good intentions.
It's a weekend strategy that's geared not towards traditional news media saturation, but rather, message optimization and it appears to be working to the advantage of the campaign. Although the VP announcement had been originally been timed for Friday had it not been for a memorial service dedicated to the Sikh shooting tragedy in Ohio, the Romney campaign says that, since Ryan's Saturday unveiling in Norfolk, $10.1 million dollars has been raised from over 124,800 donations -- 68 percent of them from new donors.
"Occurrences such as the rolling out of a vice president occur so infrequently they are always going to cut through," said Vince Harris, who ran digital operations for Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry's presidential runs. "But I think it's fair to say that from a social media perspective...the success to amplify is seen in the results."
The Romney campaign released numbers Friday showing significant upticks in social media activity this week, with Romney gaining 510 thousand Facebook followers and 54 thousand Twitter followers, and Ryan notching more than 860 thousand followers and 118 thousand followers on Twitter. In light of these figures, the Romney campaign has shown the capacity to bypass the judging eyes of traditional media and message directly to millions of supporters.
Social media habits are upending the ways political operations are targeting voters. Twitter Chief Revenue Officer has reportedly said that users are more engaged on Fridays than any other day of the week. Ahead of the VP announcement the Romney campaign encouraged supporters to download an app to learn about the pick first and asked them to sign up for a chance to meet the "Comeback Team," a targeted effort to reach the base. A lighter news cycle that's typically expected on weekends can also result in more click throughs for the main page headlines that float to the top. If the weekday news cycle has shown itself to be fast-paced and full of distraction, then weekends have presented the potential for political strategists to frame their message while only the most interested and influential are paying attention, before general news consumption peaks during the work week.
Political analysts noted that the Ryan announcement was timed unusually early by historic standards -- dating back to 1976, only John Kerry's pick of John Edwards was earlier relative to the start of the party convention. What's become clear in the first week of Paul Ryan's roll out is that the campaign is using the extra days for Ryan steady himself on the trail, with much of his time off the stage dedicated to tweaking his stump speech and preparing for the Republican National Convention. It's an effort to avoid a repeat of the mistakes made in 2008, where Sarah Palin, a GOP running mate with similar star power, had such a short onramp to the political limelight that she quickly generated gaffes which eclipsed the candidate at the top of the ticket.
With the campaign having its way, this is preseason and the official match off hasn't yet commenced.
To the dismay of the traveling press, the usually approachable Paul Ryan has not offered any on-the-record media avails and his campaign has thus far showed a preference for structured interviews, which allow the candidate more time to prepare and avoid unscripted, off-message moments. On Wednesday morning, after news broke that there had been a shooting at the Family Research Council, reporters requested a chance to ask Ryan for a comment during the three hour plane ride, during which the candidate was in view of the press at the front of the chartered flight. The request was denied. The campaign later issued a paper statement from Romney on the shootings. As such, Ryan's traveling press has had very little to report outside of his campaign speeches, which are composed of a classically styled mix of attack lines delivered in the everyman persona Ryan has been burnishing on the stump, with personal references to hunting, fishing, climbing, driving his truck, and eating cheese fries.
But even with all the careful planning, it's impossible to craft a campaign that mitigates all risk. On Thursday, during his first photo-op at The Original Hot Dog Shoppe in Warren, Ohio, Ryan decided to buy a hot dog for a member of the traveling press, Chris Moody of Yahoo News, because it was his birthday. Seated at the table with their hot dogs between them, Moody pressed Ryan to explain the $716B cuts in his House budget proposal. It was the kind of scenario that the campaign is trying to avoid, where the running mate is forced to talk about his own proposals rather than the presidential candidate's plan.
Almost at the same time but in another part of the country, Mitt Romney too ended up off-message. Attempting to draw attention to President Obama's refusal to offer any media avails to the White House press corp in more than two months, Romney held his second media avail of the week, during which he told reporters he's "never paid less than 13 percent" in federal income tax in each of the last 10 years. This only invited more questions on a topic the Romney campaign has been actively trying to scoot off the table.