Social media’s central role in the presidential campaign has elevated some unusual figures to positions of prominence. Mitt Romney probably imagined his official Twitter handle (@MittRomney) would be the provenance of his own campaign. Yet on many days, the most heavily retweeted mentions of @MittRomney—a standard gauge of popularity and influence—don’t emanate from the buttoned-down former governor, but from an account whose avatar reveals a large, hirsute man wearing nothing but a green Speedo. That’s Rob Delaney (@robdelaney), a ribald Los Angeles comic who, along with his half a million followers, has emerged as Romney’s chief tormentor on Twitter.
It’s an odd pairing. Delaney’s stand-up routine doesn’t involve politics. But his stage act is only one part of his repertoire. In May he beat out the likes of Stephen Colbert and Aziz Ansari to win Comedy Central’s “Funniest Person on Twitter” award. Here, Romney has proved irresistible—and a boon for Delaney’s career, winning him attention and bigger audiences for his act.
“Romney fascinates me endlessly,” Delaney said before his show at a Montreal comedy festival last week. “He’s such an attractive target comedically because more than any other candidate in my lifetime, he just wants to be president. That’s it! He longs for it. Feels it’s his birthright. I can imagine him getting elected and just saying, ‘Well, that’s that then!’ and staring out a window.”
Last year Delaney began tweeting about Romney and the jokes received hundreds, sometimes thousands, of retweets. They tend to portray the presumptive GOP nominee as either a hopeless square (“‘Ha ha ha! Terrific!’ —Mitt Romney, every time Jar Jar Binks appears on screen”) or a cretinous bigot (“@MittRomney I don’t care about gays marrying but they shouldn’t be allowed on straight planes because then I have to breathe gay air?”).
None of this would matter if Delaney’s portrayal of Romney didn’t routinely eclipse that of the candidate himself. At Bloomberg Businessweek’s request, VoterTide, a social media analytics company, measured Twitter mentions of Romney in June and found that Delaney’s were the most popular 44 percent of the time. On days when the real Romney took the top spot, Delaney was often second. And third. “Much of the time, his followers are pushing his message further and connecting with people better than Romney himself is doing,” says VoterTide’s co-founder, Jimmy Winter.
Delaney’s shenanigans haven’t drawn a response from Romney’s team. But he’s amassed enough followers—many national political reporters among them—that the Obama campaign contacted him to gauge his interest in helping out the cause. He’s an ardent supporter of the Affordable Care Act—a serious car accident in 2002 required multiple surgeries that left him with staggering medical bills because he lacked health insurance. Although Delaney chose to remain unaffiliated, he’s kept after Romney. “To the extent I can wield Twitter influence, I prefer to function like a much cleaner, more honest super PAC,” he says.
Romney, who has about 800,000 Twitter followers to Obama’s 18 million, has lately made an effort to improve his reach and reputation on social networks. In a bid to gin up excitement, the campaign says it will announce his running mate on a mobile “Mitt’s VP” app supporters can download.
Social media has been kinder to Delaney. Two years ago he was “toiling in the comedy salt mines” and as a telemarketer for Investor’s Business Daily. He joined Twitter in 2009 and built a large enough following to support himself doing comedy full time—Twitter users, he discovered, can support comics as passionately as they do politicians. As HBO Canada prepared to tape a segment on him, Delaney paused to reflect on his unlikely political role. “A few months back, I decided I was going to try to make fun of Mitt Romney less, because it’s like an addiction,” he admitted. “It turns out I can’t.”