When Donald Trump announced his candidacy June 15, 2015, few people could believe that the real estate mogul was actually capable of winning the Republican nomination against some of the party's strongest names. Journalists and political analysts remained skeptical about Trump's strategy that seemed largely based on insults and catchphrases with few clear stances on the issues - with the exception of his immigration policy based on building a wall in the Mexican border, racist remarks and a few claims around National security and foreign relations.
There is a public perception that Donald Trump's campaign adopted a harsh tone towards his opponents and the media and made extreme - often intolerant - remarks on public policy. As an example, the New York Times made a list of people, places and things that Trump insulted on Twitter, and The Huffington Post compiled a list of Trump's insults towards women.
In this article, we analyze Donald Trump's attack patterns on social media in three different stages of the 2016 race: the surfacing stage (from September 1st, 2015, to January 31st, 2016), the primaries (February 1st to June 6th) and the path towards the nomination (June 7th to July 19th). Specifically, we look at the extent to which Trump's campaign used negative messaging as compared to other social media strategies and the focus of his attacks (and here's how we did it).
We categorize as attack messages all posts focused on criticizing an opponent, an opposing administration, or political party on their personal traits, past behaviors, leadership skills, family, policy issues etc.
But how negative?
There's little doubt that candidates have adopted a negative tone in the 2016 campaign. This section takes a closer look to the extent to which Trump's campaign used attacks in comparison to other types of messages and to his opponents.
At the surfacing stage, Trump has posted a total of 607 attack messages on social media. While it may seem like a lot, it is only the third most used message type in this period and accounts for 21% of all messages, behind both Informative messages (29%) and Advocacy (33%).
When compared to his opponents, however, Trump is the most negative candidate of the surfacing stage, followed closely by Jeb Bush, who posted 504 attacks in the same period. Together, Bush and Trump account for roughly 66% of all negative messages posted by Republican contenders in this period.
Trump's communication strategies changed little from the surfacing to the primary stage in terms of the prominence of specific message types. Advocacy remained as the first most used strategy, accounting for 28% of all messages, followed by Informative (26%) and Attacks (20%).
During the primaries, Ted Cruz was the most negative candidate in the Republican side by a small margin - 557 attacks against 534 of Trump's campaign and 405 of Kasich's. These numbers are misleading: as demonstrated by the visualization below, Trump was the least negative candidate in March and April, and only became more negative in May, where 27% of all his attacks in the primary stage were concentrated. Conversely, Cruz is consistently the most negative candidate before dropping out.
Finally, during the path towards the nomination the negative tone increased. Attacks accounted for 28% of Trump's messages, closely behind Advocacy, with 29%. Informative messages dropped to 20%.
When compared to Hillary Clinton, though, the real state mogul is less negative. In the last two months, Clinton attacked 288 times while Trump posted 195 negative messages, which means that 60% of all attacks were made by the Democratic presumptive nominee.
Contrary to what the public perception of Trump's negativity would suggest, the Republican nominee is not the only one to blame for the harsh tone of the 2016 race so far. His opponents were more negative during the primaries and the path towards the nomination, thus highlighting the importance of putting candidates in perspective when analyzing their social media strategies over time.
Personal traits vs. public policy
After scrutinizing Trump's performance in comparison to his opponents, we now turn to the types of negative messaging. Negative messages can be focused on image or issue. The former refers to attacks that are primarily about character, personality and values, while the latter refers to critique about an opponent's issue positions - present and past.
Trump's attacks are consistently focused on image, which accounted for 72% of his negative messaging during the surfacing stage, 74% during the primaries and 64% in the nomination period.
The chart demonstrates that policy related attacks were a small portion of the negative messages. Instead, Trump focused on opponents' personal traits, character, behavior, and abilities. While negative campaigning has an important role in informing citizens about candidates' questionable moments and highlighting where candidates differ in their policy stances, Trump’s attacks on personal traits in roughly 3 out of 4 messages during the campaign so far suggest an only superficial debate on topics that are important for citizens to help them differentiate the candidates on policy matters.
The scenario is consistent in both social media platforms. Trump used Twitter more often and is, overall, more focused on image - 73% of his negative Tweets focused on his opponents’ public image. On Facebook, issues were slightly more prominent, accounting for 31% of Trump's posts.
While attacking an opponent's public image and personal traits are a part of the political game, the lack of discussion around the issues that matter to the electorate suggests that Trump's campaign is less focused on informing citizens about where he stands in comparison to his opponents on public policy. Rather he frequently points out the personality flaws of his opponents.
Take, for example, some of these social media messages from Trump’s campaign:
The bright side of negative campaigns
When one candidate attacks another, it gives voters a chance to learn about inconsistencies on an opponent’s record or weaknesses in policy plans. This allows citizens to evaluate their options in light of negative information that is otherwise obscured by a candidate's own campaign. In this sense, negative campaigns are a valuable information source for citizens who are interested in getting more information about a candidate before casting a vote. When candidates go negative around the issues, citizens have a clearer picture of where they stand and what they plan to do if elected. Trump's failure in addressing public policies while attacking his opponents means the current presidential campaign lacks deep discussion around issues while focusing on superficial claims about opponents.