NEW YORK, N.Y. - U.S. President Barack Obama is on Twitter. So is his presumed Republican challenger in the November election, Mitt Romney. And so are all the voters following the contest, whether they know it or not.
Candidates, strategists, journalists and political junkies have all flocked to the social networking hub, where information from the mundane to the momentous is shared through 140-character microbursts known as tweets.
While relatively few voters are on Twitter — a study by the Pew Research Center found that about 13 per cent of U.S. adults have joined the site — it's become an essential tool for campaigns to test-drive themes and make news with a group of politically wired "influencers" who share those messages with the broader world.
When a voter is exposed to any information on the presidential race, chances are it's been through the Twitter filter first.
Four years ago, Twitter was still in relative infancy, and just 1.8 million tweets were sent on Election Day 2008. Now, Twitter gets that many approximately every eight minutes.
"The subset of people on Twitter may be relatively small, but it's a politically engaged audience whose influence extends both online and off," said Heather LaMarre, a University of Minnesota communications professor who studies social media.
Radio, TV and the Internet all prompted campaigns to adapt in the past, but radio and television are top-down mediums at heart — from the broadcaster to the public. Never before has a grassroots technology like Twitter given voice and power to millions — and given candidates a real-time way to monitor the effects of their messages and change them on the fly.
Obama's 2012 State of the Union address drew 800,000 tweets, Twitter said. And tweets mentioning Rick Santorum jumped from 10-20 per minute to over 2,500 tweets per minute when news broke that he was suspending his bid for the Republican nomination.
Both the Obama and Romney campaigns are mindful of the hazards of Twitter, designating staffers to monitor the site for problems to address or mistakes from their rivals to exploit.
"Our team understands that the most important issues in this campaign are jobs and the economy, not the Twitter controversy of the day," Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said. "But we need to be on top of everything and monitor every aspect of this race. Twitter helps us keep our finger on the pulse of the fast moving pace of new media."
The Romney campaign sought to seize advantage after Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen remarked that Romney's wife, Ann, a stay-at-home mother of five sons, had "never worked a day in her life." Polls show Romney lagging badly among women voters, and his advisers have sought ways to mitigate the gender gap.
After Rosen's comments on CNN quickly exploded — on Twitter — the Romney campaign launched a Twitter feed by the candidate's wife.
"I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work," Ann Romney said in her first tweet. "All moms are entitled to choose their path," she said in her second.
That helped cast Democrats as unsympathetic to women who stay home with children — a score for the Romney campaign that went far beyond the Twitter audience.
The Obama team deployed Michelle Obama to push back on the issue.
"Every mother works hard and every woman deserves to be respected," the first lady tweeted.
Twitter also helped lead to the resignation of a Romney foreign policy spokesman this week. Richard Grenell stepped down in part because of caustic tweets he had sent about a number of public figures including commentator Rachel Maddow and former Republican contender Newt Gingrich.
"You're more likely to be embarrassed by what's said on Twitter than to be praised," Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. He called that one of Twitter's biggest pitfalls.
But, he added, "Twitter has this quality of being an alert system that elevates it above the number of people using it."
Follow Beth Fouhy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bfouhy