The central function of political campaigns is to give voters the information they need to pick a candidate who will best represent their interests. When campaigns were held in the 1980s and 1990s, the public relied on the news media to learn about the candidates, and they heard from the candidates directly through paid television, print, and radio advertising and mail fliers. Today, the public is getting more of their information from the election via social media than ever before, according to a new Pew Research Center study.
The question is: what is the public learning? Are they getting the issue and policy positions of the candidates that they need so that they can make an informed decision, or are they getting self-aggrandizement and claims about how great the candidate is as a person, leader, or family member?
To answer this question, I analyzed all of the Facebook and Twitter messages by the presidential candidates between September 1, 2015 and January 30th, 2016. This time period is the “surfacing” stage of the 2016 presidential campaign. That is when the presidential contenders begin to introduce themselves to the electorate, carve out their issue positions, and construct the image that they hope will propel them through the early voting states to secure themselves the nomination.
I also looked through the primary stage of the presidential campaign from February 1, 2016 through the Republican convention. This stage, especially between February and April, is when the campaigns are intensely competing for votes and differentiating themselves from their opponents.
I looked at business man Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, and four other Republican contenders for the nomination: Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio because they were the strongest candidates through the primaries, and we added in former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who early polls and pontificators suggested would be the eventual nominee.
The analysis of the candidates’ social media messages takes advantage of approaches to data analysis that use computational techniques to categorize messages. After humans categorize a sample of the messages, that sample is used by computer software to help identify patterns in the messages that can be translated into an algorithm that is applied to the rest of the messages collected. The categories of interest here focus on the candidates’ messages about their image or about their issue positions. The accuracy of the algorithm is about 70%, which is similar to what humans can achieve looking at similar messages.
Image Trumps Issue
Similar to an analysis we just completed on Trump’s attack positions, this analysis also suggests that Trump overwhelmingly has focused on constructing his image over providing even basic statements of policy or his stances on the major issues facing the nation over the course of the campaign to date.
Focusing on the surfacing stage, Trump posted substantially more messages about his image than his opponents. He often did this via retweets of praise-worthy messages from supporters, such as a tweet on November 6th, 2015: “@bob_forbes2: Donald trump has built a lifetime reputation of doing what he says he will do. He keeps his promises.” In December, 2015 s the presidential campaigning kicked into high gear in preparation for the first votes, Trump posted nearly three times as many messages about his image as any of the other candidates, often along the lines of the theme of this messages posted December 6th, 2015: “I have been saying it for sometime now! #MakeAmericaGreatAgain #Trump2016”.
During the primary phase, his rivals, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, talked even more about their image and persona than Trump did, although not by a substantial proportion.
Issues, what Issues?
On the issues, though, Trump tweeted and posted to Facebook fewer messages during the surfacing stage than Kasich and Bush. Jeb Bush was the most issue focused during this time period. Only 23% of Trump’s advocacy messages were on the issues, while 59% of Bush’s were on the issues. Meanwhile, Ted Cruz was the least issue focused during this time period.
But, that changed during the primaries. Cruz’s tactics changed, and he became significantly more issue focused. Meanwhile, trump remained only modestly focused on the issues relative to his competitors. In April, in the waning but most intensive days for the Cruz campaign, he posted twice as many issue-focused posts as Trump.
One item of note is that Trump was more issue focused when the campaign was competitive. For example, on February 4th, he posted to Twitter and Facebook: “Politicians are trying to chip away at the 2nd Amendment. I won’t let them take away our guns! #MakeAmericaGreatAgain #Trump2016”. He also posted to Facebook: “If elected POTUS-I will begin building the wall immediately-and Mexico will pay for it! It is time to END illegal immigration!”
But as his nomination became more certain in May and his opponents ended their campaigns, Trump’s volume of issue-focused messages has been declining, from 55 in May to only 35 so far this month.
Voters Need More to Make Good Decisions
During the surfacing and primary stages of the Republican campaign, when the candidates advocated for themselves, it was much more about image than about substance. Donald Trump, in particular has focused heavily on his image, providing little by way of policy or issue positions. For the voting public that has to make a decision on election day, social media from the candidates so far has provided little of what they need to make an informed decision about where the Republican nominee stands on policy matters.