How Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders Rose to Prominence
Exploring Use of Twitter in Election 2016
In 2008 and 2012, President Barack Obama leveraged the potential of social media to mobilize the support of potential voters and get into the White House. Through his campaign blog and social networking sites like Twitter, Obama successfully targeted his existing supporters and increased voter turnout within his individual support base. Since that time, social media has become a tool widely used by politicians to communicate with their intended audiences. Today, social networks are used to share ideas, post videos, send links, provide information and answer questions. “The content of information generated from candidates and organizations presents interesting implications.” How presidential candidates running in the 2016 election brand themselves online has played a large role in their successes and failures in mobilizing support from prospective voters.
I am studying how 2016 presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Republican businessman Donald Trump have engaged with their followers on social media and which posts are most engaged with in order to find out how effective their social media strategies are at reaching their intended audiences. Through this research, citizens will gain a deeper understanding of how they are being marketed to by politicians. It is important to recognize how one is being marketed to because success on social media has influenced the outcomes of the last two elections. “Since people tend to prefer information that reinforces their predispositions, those who use SNSs (social networking sites) to gather political information frequently are more likely to believe the Internet helps them to connect with like-minded people when it comes to their political views.” According the uses and gratifications theory, people often seek out information that aligns with their personal beliefs. The key for politicians is to rally existing supporters and get them to vote on their behalf.
Bernie Sanders, 74, is running for the Democratic nomination for president. He was born on September 8, 1941, and was raised in Brooklyn, New York. After graduating from the University of Chicago, he moved to Vermont to work as a carpenter and documentary filmmaker. In 1981, he became the mayor of Burlington, Vermont. He won that election by just 10 votes. Since then, he has devoted himself to public service. After ending his mayoral run in 1989, he was elected as Vermont’s sole congressman. As an independent, he served in the House of Representatives from 1991 to 2007. From 2007 to today, he has served as a senator. Between 2013 and 2015, Sanders served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. According to his presidential campaign website, he “lives in Burlington, Vermont with his wife Jane. He has four children and seven grandchildren.” Issues of income inequality and campaign finance are particularly important to Sanders.
Donald Trump, 69, was born in Queens, New York on June 14, 1946. Unlike Sanders, Donald Trump has no previous experience as an elected politician. Trump is a wealthy businessman who made his riches in real estate. He is the chairman and president of The Trump Organization. Trump graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Finance and authored The Art of the Deal. He is married to Melania Trump, his third wife, and is father to Donald Jr., Ivanka, Eric, Tiffany and Barron. He also has seven grandchildren. According to his campaign website, he “devotes much of his time to media interviews in order to promote a Free Market, the importance of a strong family, a culture of Life, a strong military and our country’s sacred obligation to take care of our veterans and their families.”
Why 2016 Matters
With more Millennials becoming involved in electioneering in the 2016 presidential election, politicians must satisfy the demands of their younger constituents. “This emerging generation has a penchant for getting its information from the Net, especially on social networking sites. Younger voters are twice as likely as others to use the Net, rather than newspaper, to get information about political campaigns.” Moreover, social media’s importance with Millennials forces politicians to utilize newer platform to deliver their messages. The topic of social media use from presidential candidates to garner support matters because more Millennials are becoming engaged in the political process and want to be more connected with their representatives. This report will aim to explain how Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have effective employed social media strategies to garner support.
The use of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States political system. The first major politician to use communication technologies was former President Bill Clinton in 1992. Clinton used computerized interactive telephone calls, issued video press releases and video mail targeted to specific constituent groups or geographic regions. The Clinton campaign was the first to use the Internet extensively to disseminate information. In 1996, news outlets began expanding their online coverage of elections. In 2000, John McCain and Steve Forbes successfully used the web for campaign fundraising. Although the Internet had little impact in swaying voters at the turn of the 21st century, it did serve an important function. It served mostly for candidate and attitude reinforcement rather than persuasion. However as time progressed, the Internet became a hotbed for political discussion. By 2004, 52 percent of online users “indicated that information obtained from the Internet influence their vote.”
Evolution of Social Media in Politics
With the foundation of MySpace in 2003, Facebook in 2004, and YouTube in 2006, campaigns started using social networks from the beginning. The 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean set the standard for how to properly use social media as both an organizing and fundraising tool.
“The Internet had been utilized by presidential candidates prior to the 2008 campaign, but not to the extent, nor level of success, as Obama during the campaign … Political communication has evolved dramatically in the twenty-first century and the 2008 presidential campaign is evidence of that evolution.” -Hendricks & Denton
Obama’s 2008 election campaign used a range of tools that existed at the time of his campaign in order to reach voters of all ages, ethnicities, economic classes, and sexual orientations. The successful Obama-Biden campaign relied heavily on social networking sites like Twitter to communicate his messages to the American people.
Role of Twitter
For the purposes of this research report, a significant emphasis is placed on candidates’ personal tweets. Twitter was launched in 2006 and enabled users to send brief 140-character messages called “tweets.” People engage with tweets through replies, favorites (formerly called “likes”), and retweets. Twitter is important because it adds “a new dimension to our understanding of political communication and behavior.” According to data from the 2015 Pew Research Center report, more Americans used social media to connect with politicians. Between the 2010 midterms and 2014 midterms, there was a 10 percent increase in the number of registered voters who followed candidates for office, political parties, or elected officials on a social networking site. The report also found breaking news was a growing reason why voters follow political figures. Moreover, people use Twitter to develop a deeper understanding of presidential candidates. Today, 65 million U.S. residents are monthly active users on Twitter, according to Twitter’s 2016 first quarter report. Because of the proliferation of social networking sites, it is impossible for candidates to avoid utilizing a valuable tool that can reach a large demographic.
This research report seeks to make a contribution by exploring how Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have been able to leverage social networks like Twitter to gain traction for their campaigns. This report will strengthen the understanding of how followers engage with presidential candidates and how candidates engage with their followers. For the purposes of the project, engagement is as the number of favorites and the number of retweets for a given tweet. By examining which tweets and posts are most engaged with, light will be shed on the messaging strategies the candidates are using to reach their potential audiences. Tweets and posts were coded based on the emotions they convey, such as anger and happiness. Examining the most engaged with tweets will also highlight which issues are most concerning to the American public.
The 2016 presidential election is perhaps the most unusual election in modern history. Trump, along with a few other presidential candidates, have sought to brand themselves as outsiders far removed from establishment politics. Though Donald Trump is a businessman who has contributed to Democrats and Republicans, he argues that one of his greatest strengths is getting along with everybody. However, his rhetoric has largely been divisive. By analyzing Donald Trump’s official tweets from January 1 to Super Tuesday, it will become clearer how his messaging is being received on Twitter. Bernie Sanders has also operated on a platform that he is not an establishment politician like his Democratic primary rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While Sanders has worked in public office since 1981, he is one of the few members of Congress registered as an independent. Sanders has repeatedly said that he considers himself to be a democratic socialist, which makes him the most liberal candidate running for president.
Sanders is an outspoken figure who argues against the corrupt U.S. campaign finance system, Wall Street interests, and income inequality. This report will explore how Sanders’ messaging on his official Twitter account resonates with voters, and the extent to which he is running a positive campaign. The report intends to enlighten readers to better understand how they receive messages from presidential candidates.
Looking at the collected Twitter data, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders might have more similarities most people would expect. Though there appears to be a difference in the valence of tweets in terms of positive versus negative messaging, Trump and Sanders seem to employ similar words in their tweets to increase engagement. This section examines the messaging from the two campaigns using data collected from @realDonaldTrump and @BernieSanders verified Twitter accounts between January 1 and April 5. The tweets were then sorted separately by candidate and then compared from highest to lowest in terms of engagement. For the purposes of this project, engagement was determined as the sum of the retweets and likes. Next, the top 50 tweets were coded to highlight which messages were the most widely shared.
Common Words in Popular Tweets
The phrasing of the tweets played a major role in how widely shared the messages became. After inserting the text of each of the candidates’ 50 tweets into TagCrowd, a word cloud generator, and removing common articles such as “the” and “and,” it became apparent that Trump and Sanders had identical words in their tweets that were most engaged with. Bernie Sanders’ word cloud of the 50 tweets most engaged between January 1 and April 5 reveals his most shared tweets are about Trump, Republicans, and America.
As shown in Sanders’ word cloud in Figure 1 (see below), negatively valenced content was more shared than positively valenced content. Some examples of negative words include the following: beat, condemn, criticized, fighting, hard, hate, and stop. More positive words include thank, together, and win. Though Sanders has largely run an issue-driven campaign, his negative tweets about Republicans are most engaged with. Among his top 50 tweets, #GOPDebate was used more than #DemDebate.
Donald Trump’s most shared tweets were also similar in their language to Sanders. For example, Trump frequently mentioned himself, America, Obama, and Hillary Clinton. Like Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump’s tweets became widely engaged with when he attacked a member of the opposite political party. Trump also appeared to play more into his followers’ anger than their optimism. Through negatively valenced content, Trump attracted a lot of attention on Twitter.
Trump’s word cloud (see Figure 2 above) shows how he used harsh language with words like “attack,” “borders,” “fight,” “illegal,” “nobody,” “phony,” “sad,” “shut,” “stop” and “terror.” However, Trump’s account also shows a healthy mix of positive engagement by thanking people for attending his campaign rallies in order to “Make America Great Again.”
Frequency and Delivery Platforms
Twitonomy, an analytics tool that is able to provide data about users’ Twitter activities, it appears that Sanders tweets at a greater frequency than Trump. While Sanders averaged 25 tweets per day, Trump averaged just 18 tweets per day. During a CNN interview conducted by Anderson Cooper on April 12, Trump and his family spoke about the use of social media. Trump’s wife, Melania, said she had cautioned her husband several times using Twitter to produce more positively valenced content. The interview also rtevealed Trump does not directly compose all of his tweets. When asked if he writes all his own tweets, Trump said the following: “I would say ‘yes’ other than if we release some information. I have some people — Dan [Scavino] and some other people that will do it. During the day when I’m in the office, I just shout it [the tweet] out to one of the young ladies who … I’ll just shout it out and they’ll do it. But during the evenings, after 7 o’clock or so, I will always do it by myself.” Because Trump plays a large part in the composition of his tweets, he relies heavily on mobile devices. Of Trump’s 3,169 tweets since October 14, 2015, 91.3 percent were published from an Android or iPhone device. See Figure 3.
In contrast, Sanders mostly has Hector Sigala, his digital media director, compose tweets on his behalf. Of Sanders’ 3,158 tweets since December 1, 2015, 58.4 percent were published through TweetDeck TweetDeck is an application that allows users to schedule tweets for certain times and manage content. 83.2 percent of Sanders’ tweets were likely published on a desktop computer. Just 16 percent of Sanders’ tweets were published from an Android or iPhone device. This represents a 75 percent gap in the proportion of tweets between Trump and Sanders that were composed on a mobile device. Therefore, while the content that is posted may be categorically similar between the two candidates, the mechanism used to broadcast them is different.
After examining the top 50 most shared tweets from Trump and Sanders, a sentiment analysis was run to gain a general understanding of the emotions conveyed. Though the candidates used different delivery platform, there were several common words between Trump and Sanders. Refer to Figure 1 and Figure 2. While the words were similar, the valence of the tweets were dramatically different. For example, Sanders’ top 50 shared tweets featured more positively valenced content. See Figure 5.
In contrast, Trump’s 50 most shared tweets had a highly negative valence. See Figure 6.
Areas of Future Study
As later iterations of this project are researched, more will be discussed about the use of multimedia, such as images, gifs, emojis, and videos. After looking through the data as a whole, it appears Trump uses multimedia at a much higher rate than Sanders and receives more engagement on his videos and images. More research could be conducted on a larger set of data for future studies as well.
2016 is a complicated election that has not transpired as expected. Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush were widely considered to be the eventual nominees of their respective parties when the election first began. However, over the course of several months, Trump and Sanders have been able to strike a nerve with prospective voters and deliver a message that resonates with the general public. For better or for worse, they are top contenders. One of them could possibly be the next President of the United States. Any effort to gain additional knowledge of the candidates will help voters make informed decisions. At the same time, it will offer insight for future political campaigns to employ effective strategies for winning an election.
In order to narrow the scope of this report, data collection was limited to the first three months of 2016. This window of time included events leading up to the first ballots being cast in Iowa to the end of Super Tuesday. Super Tuesday is particularly noteworthy because of Trump’s strong performance and Sanders’ ability to win four state primaries. Super Tuesday put both candidates on the map as serious contenders. Therefore, an examination of social media posts leading up to Super Tuesday and during Super Tuesday offers insight into how each candidate successfully got their message across to voters. In addition to gathering quantitative
data from Twitter, qualitative data was be gathered. Tweets were coded based on their emotional valences, such positive versus negative. Trump has been effective at using Twitter by publishing negatively valenced content. He shares a unique bond with his followers because he claims to publish his own tweets after 7 p.m. This means he plays a significant role in the publication process and allows him to get his message across to prospective voters as he sees fit. Trump’s most shared tweets are edgier and more controversial than Sanders’ tweets.
When Trump posts more positive content, he seems to boast about his own merit.
Of Trump’s top 50 shared tweets, about one in every three pertained to media bias, terrorism, or immigration. When talking about these issues, Trump mostly launched personal attacks at politicians or members of the press. Some of the common names most frequently criticized were Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. In rare circumstances, Trump talked about what he would do if he became president. When producing more positively valenced content about himself, he tweeted in third person.
When Sanders used first person, he mostly tweeted out the word “we” rather than “I.” In Sanders’ top 10 shared tweets, six used the words “together” or “thank/thank you.” This reflects the larger trends of Sanders tweeting more positive content to his followers than Trump. While Trump talked about himself a lot, Sanders was more inclusive.
Sanders’ language generally appeared more polished than Trump. This may likely be the result of Trump physically publishing his own tweets or being more heavily involved in the publishing process. Sanders’ willingness to delegate out social media responsibilities to his staff, especially Hector Sigala helps him curate more positive, appropriate content.
Sanders has often branded himself as an issue-driven candidate. While there were dozens of tweets about income inequality and racial discrimination, issue-driven tweets were not as common as Trump in terms of the top 50 shared tweets. Trump did not talk about a wide variety of issues. Instead, he focused on addressing a smaller number of issues more fully. Sanders appears to address a wider variety of issues than Trump, but doesn’t gain too much traction on them.
In Sanders’ top 50 shared tweets, common talking points included healthcare, terrorism, abortion rights, environmentalism, racial inequality, wealth distribution, and trade. While there is a pattern of more social issues being discussed, the wide variety of issues that are frequently discussed shows how Sanders supporters are concerned about broader issues. In general, these broader issues pertain to social justice and equality.
Though Sanders and Trump use Twitter in very different ways, they both communicate their messages effectively to their intended audiences. Trump plays off people’s fears while Sanders feed off of optimism on a wide range of subjects.
Because the data was not collected over a longer period of time, it is difficult to generalize results to the entire duration of the campaign. Additionally, retweets and likes are not necessarily the best indicators of engagement. Rather, those metrics reflect how a message spreads. Besides the valence of a tweet, not much can be interpreted qualitatively. Finally, this project focused more on how Trump and Sanders delivered a message rather than how followers interpreted and responded to the messages provided to them. The two-step flow of communication model states that messages are transmitted from mass media to opinion leaders to individuals. This project makes no mention of opinion leaders and does not fully address the filtration system from a message sender — Trump and Sanders — to the individual recipient.
This project was designed to offer an enhanced understanding of how Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump use their Twitter accounts to market themselves as effectively as possible to prospective voters. After sifting through tweets collected between January 1 and April 5, any interesting findings emerged. While their 50 most shared tweets are similar in language, Sanders generally has a more positive tone on Twitter. As Sanders focuses on a broader range of issues through his tweets, Trump has a narrower set of issues that he likes to repeat. Each candidate employs various strategies using various distribution platforms as well. While Trump frequently writes out his own tweets, Sanders relies more heavily on his staff to manage his Twitter account. For this reason, Sanders’ language appears to be more polished than Trump’s. With Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee and Sanders still in the race in mid-May, it is safe to say they have exceeded many people’s expectations. Part of their success has come from how they have branded themselves on social networking sites like Twitter. Though Trump and Sanders are using Twitter in different ways, they have effectively communicated their messages to their target audiences.