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April 18th, 2013

Journalists dish on best practices for viral memes, pop culture humor

At a Campaign Tech Conference panel in Washington, D.C. Thursday, panelists discuss the intersection of culture and politics and how to drive the campaign conversation.

WASHINGTON—Political reporters and digital strategists shared their experiences on how culture drives politics and what causes a meme to explode virally and shift the media narrative.

David Weigel, a political reporter for and a prolific Twitter influencer with more than 100,000 followers, said social media prowess varied between the Romney and Obama campaign for president.

The Romney campaign “won Twitter” more often than the Obama campaign—for example, when Ann Romney debuted on Twitter to capitalize on an attack from Democratic strategist Hillary Rosen. The Obama campaign excelled at exploiting YouTube, Facebook and

“Operatives for the [Romney] campaign were very good at sort of elbowing reporters—in a good way,” Weigel said. “You can’t not notice the criticism. It’s very quick, it’s public, and you have to respond to it.”

Perhaps the most pressing question for conservatives when dealing with the intersection of culture and politics: “Why aren’t Republicans funny?” asked panel moderator Amelia Chasse of New Hampshire- and D.C.-based Hynes Communications.

“If I knew I would be a millionaire consultant,” said Emily Zanotti, the editor of Naked D.C. and creator of the “Hey Girl, It’s Paul Ryan” meme. “Conservatives sort of respond to general cultural phenomena with a critical eye [rooted in their long-standing opposition to Hollywood and mainstream media].”

If conservative operatives don’t embrace pop culture, they’ll fade in influence. An ascendant class of young Republicans are pressing GOP campaigns to ensure that doesn’t happen.

“Now there’s more of an opportunity to interact with entertainment and news media,” Zanotti said. “Conservatives haven’t realized that politics is downstream from culture. They need to start valuing the arts and taking an active role in that, otherwise they’re going to be on the outside of humor for a while.”

Viral political videos emerged in a real way in the 2010 campaign cycle. Popular examples include consultant Fred Davis’ “demon sheep” ad, Delaware GOP Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell’s “I Am Not A Witch” spot and former Alabama Agriculture Commissioner candidate Dale Peterson’s folksy, gun-toting ad.

Those videos garnered millions of hits, but viral success doesn’t necessarily translate to the ballot box.

Janice and DNC Chairwoman & Fla. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Janice and DNC Chairwoman & Fla. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Via

“The campaign video is kind of on the way out,” said’s viral politics editor Benny Johnson, who created a meme featuring 21 congress-critters who resemble Muppets. Memes are replacing viral videos as key narrative influencers because they require less effort to share and view, said Johnson, a former Iowa Federation of College Republicans chairman and University of Iowa graduate.

Zeke Miller, a reporter for TIME Magazine and a former BuzzFeed journalist, said that new media sources such as Reddit’s Ask Me Anything forums increasingly drive campaign content. President Obama’s Aug. 2012 AMA “got a huge amount of pickup” among traditional media outlets, he said.

“New media drives old media in a lot of ways,” he said. “There’s just this fascination with candidates tapping into [Reddit]. As long as you don’t say anything really stupid, you’re going to come out great.”

Miller said such a focus is part of politics’ effort to circumvent the filter of the national press to reach Americans directly.

“The Obama campaign’s whole strategy is to find ways to go around the press,” he said. “If they can use social media as a way to communicate directly with voters… why use someone who’s going to edit down a 20 minute interview?”

About the Campaign Tech Conference

The Campaign Tech Conference, hosted by Campaigns & Elections Magazine, attracts top strategists from political campaigns, nonprofit advocacy groups and corporate communicators. The conference features five keynote panels and 20 breakout sessions for campaign strategists, political organizers, issue advocates and techies. More than 100 speakers from 85 organizations will update attendees on the latest tools and technology for digital advocacy.

About the Author

Jeff Patch

Jeff Patch is a correspondent for He’s a communications, research and political consultant for Iowa candidates, causes and companies. E-mail questions, comments, insults or story ideas to jeff [at]

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