New PEORIA Project Report: #WeCouldHaveSeenThemComing

How Twitter followers and engagement foreshadowed the rise of Trump and Sanders

May 25, 2016

John Brandt: [email protected], 202-994-3199
Jason Shevrin: [email protected], 202-994-5631


WASHINGTON – Closer scrutiny of data from the social network Twitter would have helped to diagnose and predict the rise of the two outsider candidates in the 2016 presidential election, businessman Donald Trump and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, according to a new Public Echoes Of Rhetoric In America (PEORIA) Project report from George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM) released Tuesday.

Using social analytics data from Crimson Hexagon, GSPM Professors Michael Cohen, Michael Cornfield, and Lara Brown found that Twitter provides intelligence on the amount of attention candidates are getting from an important segment of the public while supplying candidates with a direct means to engage and build support.  Both Trump and Sanders were heavy Twitter users and the platform allowed both to mitigate shortcomings each candidate had in “traditional” campaign measures.

“Donald Trump was able to leverage his already huge Twitter following more effectively than anyone else running for President of the United States.  But from a campaign perspective, the star of the nomination season is Bernie Sanders who had the least number of followers when he announced his campaign and grew to become a significant long-term problem for Clinton in terms of engagement on the platform, reflected in enthusiasm at the ballot box.  If we were watching followers and engagement, we could have seen both Trump and Sanders coming,” said Cohen.

PEORIA research found that Twitter was an early asset for Trump, who began his run for the White House with 2,977,242 followers. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, his closest final rival, had a 10:1 deficit in Twitter followers on March 23, the day he announced his run.

On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had an even larger follower margin than Sanders, 3,208,701 to just 41,732 or a 71:1 margin.

These followers have a real value to campaigns. They can identify the candidate by name, a basic campaign metric, and are potential supporters. They have in essence opted-in to receiving campaign messages, which they can amplify or echo to their social networks. An advantage in followers translates to stronger name identification, attention hogging potential, and potential support.

Similarly, the growth rate of followers was an indicator of the rising Trump and Sanders campaign coalitions. The New York businessman saw his following grow 178 percent from his announcement to the Indiana primary. Sanders’ account exploded in the months after his announcement, growing 1,526 percent from announcement to Indiana.

“A century ago still photographers told people sitting for their portraits to 'watch the birdie.'  Our report shows why in a different technological context that's good advice for people running for office. The growth in Sanders’ account is what’s striking here and far exceeds all other candidates in both parties. This will become an important metric to put into the equation of evaluating a campaign going forward,” said Cornfield.

Though Clinton had an advantage over Sanders in total follower count, the Vermont senator’s followers were much more engaged, which may partly explain how he closed the polling gap despite fewer Twitter followers.

”While it’s a standard disclaimer in many Twitter accounts that retweets are not endorsements, it appears as though they are de facto ones. Retweets echo a campaign’s message exactly as it was intended amplifying its impact. Sanders’ ability to get his exact messages retweeted shows the power an echo can have across platforms and for campaigns. These echoes are what we’re looking to understand with the GSPM PEORIA Project.”

Finally, PEORIA found that Twitter accounts maintain their power after the end of campaigns, and should be viewed as a long-term political asset. Even after suspending their campaigns, the accounts of Republican aspirants Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and Jeb Bush continued to grow. If any of the three decides to make a return to the political arena, their Twitter followers will be a key source of grassroots energy and promotion. 

Though just 23 percent of the 85 percent of US adults online use Twitter, its influence extends beyond the platform. Tweets are visible in other media, from television, to online news, and even hot off the newspaper press. Its impact looks to continue to grow and future editions of PEORIA will seek to determine how certain messages and messengers come to dominate, how much those messages are driven by the campaign versus organic activity, and the overall dynamics of Twitter use in different media and by opposite ideologies.

This release is based on a close collaboration with Crimson Hexagon, a leader in social media analytics.  All data included in this release was derived from their platform, including day-by-day numbers of followers, and various indicators of engagement.  Additional analyses are provided in the accompanying report as well as additional context in the companion deck available from GSPM on the PEORIA website.