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Who’s Winning the Social Media Midterms?

After President Donald Trump’s popularity on social media helped propel him to an upset victory in 2016, Democrats vowed to catch up.

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Kevin Roose
Keith Collins, New York Times

After President Donald Trump’s popularity on social media helped propel him to an upset victory in 2016, Democrats vowed to catch up.

Two years later, their efforts appear to be paying off.

A New York Times analysis of data from the Facebook and Instagram accounts of hundreds of candidates in next month’s midterm elections reveals that Democrats — and especially Democrats running for House seats — enjoy a sizable national lead in engagement on the two influential platforms.

But the analysis of the engagement data, which includes all non-advertising content, also shows that Republicans in many closely contested races for Senate and governor are faring better on Facebook than their Democratic challengers.

The data, collected from more than 53,000 posts by more than 1,100 accounts, reflects a month’s worth of social media activity by nearly all of the Republican and Democratic candidates running for House, Senate or governor this year. The data, which covers 30 days ending Oct. 15, was gathered using a Facebook-owned tool called CrowdTangle. The tool counts the number of times users comment on, react to or share a user’s posts, a measure of popularity known as “total interactions.”

The data includes public posts made by candidates on Facebook and Instagram. It does not include paid ads unless those ads began as organic, non-paid posts that were subsequently “boosted” using Facebook’s advertising tools. It also does not include activity on private accounts, or posts made visible only to specific groups of followers. In instances where candidates had an official government account as well as a campaign account, both accounts were included in the calculations. In some instances, politicians who are independent, but who caucus with Democrats or Republicans, were included on those parties’ lists.

Together, the data amounts to a revealing picture of how those candidates’ messages are resonating with a digital audience, and how social media activity both mirrors and departs from more traditional polling methods.

It also shows that Democrats often dominate the conversation on Instagram, but Republican candidates are finding their biggest audiences on Facebook, the largest and most influential social network.

Measuring total interactions on social media is an imperfect way to gauge a candidate’s electoral chances, in part because it does not distinguish between types of engagement. A negative comment left on a Republican candidate’s page by an angry Democrat would still count as an interaction, for example. In addition, it does not account for the fact that some candidates have more followers than others.

But social media engagement can be a crude measure of popularity, and a bellwether of shifts in public opinion that often turn up in polls days or weeks later. In 2016, many polls and pundits gave Trump little chance of winning, but his performance on Facebook was soaring, bolstered by millions of dollars in targeted advertising. His digital campaign director, Brad Parscale, later credited Facebook’s scale and influence with his victory.

As some Republican lawmakers accuse Facebook of anti-conservative bias, the party’s candidates are still intensely interested in using it to get elected. Even the most tech-skeptical candidates have recognized that when it comes to modern political campaigning, there is no avoiding Facebook.

“Facebook is the most widespread platform, and for campaigns, it’s like broadcast television,” said Tim Lim, a Democratic digital consultant. “You have so much reach, and so many ad units, and probably more eyeballs than anywhere else.”

— The National Story: A Democratic Boom

At the national level, Democrats on Facebook and Instagram appear to be winning the battle for social media supremacy in a landslide.

Democrats running for House, Senate and governor’s seats in this fall’s elections received a combined 15.1 million interactions on Facebook in the 30-day period, roughly three times the 5.4 million interactions received by Republican candidates.

Some of the Democrats’ social media gains can be attributed to a well-organized online resistance movement. An influx of small-dollar donations has given Democrats a large fundraising lead, which has allowed them to spend more on digital campaigning and advertising. A surge in involvement from organizations like Tech for Campaigns — which has mobilized nearly 10,000 volunteers from the tech industry to help Democratic campaigns use digital tools — has also helped.

Jonathan Strauss, a former adviser to Democratic campaigns who is now head of product at Swing Left, said that investments made by Democrats after Trump’s election were paying dividends.

“I don’t want to jinx anything, but we’re definitely doing a lot better than 2016,” Strauss said.

— The Democrats’ Superstar Problem

Democrats’ national success on social media may not translate to the “blue wave” many liberals are hoping for in November.

That’s because much of the left’s firepower is concentrated among a few of its high-profile candidates — namely, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, who has more than 600,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter and more than 250,000 on Instagram.

Of those candidates, only O’Rourke is running in a competitive race this year.

During the 30-day period, Sanders, Warren and O’Rourke accounted for 86 percent of Democratic Senate candidates’ Facebook interactions and 92 percent of their Instagram interactions.

If you strip away those three Democrats and their challengers, the left’s social media advantage in Senate races virtually disappears.

Excluding Sanders, Warren, O’Rourke and their challengers, Democrats and Republicans are essentially tied, with Democrats getting only about 8 percent more Facebook interactions over the 30-day period. Part of the popularity of Sanders, Warren and O’Rourke on social media is their political personas, which are punchy, passionate and tailor-made to resonate with fired-up progressive audiences online. They also have dedicated digital staff members and sophisticated tools to create custom content and test various messages for impact.

Smaller campaigns often have fewer resources devoted to digital campaigning, and few have captured the attention of huge online audiences.

“We only have one Beto O’Rourke,” said Lim, the Democratic consultant. “In reality, we should have 20 Beto O’Rourkes.”

— Instagram Is for Democrats

In addition to revealing which candidates are finding the biggest audiences online, the data also hints at the partisan balance of each network.

Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo app, has a younger and more progressive crowd than its parent company’s namesake social network.

In the past 30 days, the number of interactions on Democrats’ Instagram accounts dwarfed those on Republican accounts. These interactions were again led by Sanders, Warren and O’Rourke, whose posts received a combined 5.2 million favorites and comments in the past 30 days.

The political tilt of platforms reflects the demographics of the people who use them. According to the Pew Research Center, Facebook is used by 65 percent of Americans over 50, and by 58 percent of rural users and 60 percent of users with a high school degree or less, all groups that often lean more conservative.

Instagram, by contrast, is most popular with users between ages 18 and 29, who tend to vote for Democrats.

— In Close Races, Some Republicans Are Surging on Facebook

Of course, not all midterm races matter equally.

The social media activity in races rated as toss-ups by the Cook Political Report, an independent election analyst, mirrors many recent polls, which show a slight edge for Republicans in the Senate and an edge for Democrats in the House.

In five of the nine toss-up Senate races, Republicans received more interactions on Facebook than Democrats.

In Tennessee’s Senate race, for example, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican who is leading in the polls by a slight margin, got 77,000 more interactions on Facebook over the 30-day period than Phil Bredesen, her Democratic opponent. (Bredesen has an overwhelming lead on Instagram, where he got more than three times as many likes and comments as Blackburn.) In five of 10 gubernatorial toss-up races, Republican candidates saw more engagement on Facebook than their opponents.

In Georgia, Brian Kemp, the Republican running for governor, has outperformed Stacey Abrams, his Democratic challenger, on Facebook. Despite Abrams having thousands more Facebook followers than Kemp, Kemp received 90 percent more Facebook interactions than Abrams over the 30-day period. His most popular post, in which he accused Abrams of raising money from “radical liberals who want to turn Georgia into the next California,” was shared more than 9,000 times.

In close House races, things look a bit better for Democrats. Of the 31 House races listed as toss-ups by Cook Political Report, Democratic candidates received more interactions than their Republican opponents in 23 of them.

— Republicans Benefited More from the Kavanaugh Effect

Candidates from both parties appear to have benefited from the late September fervor surrounding the contentious confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, which galvanized conservatives in his favor and created a surge in left-wing support for Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault.

But Republicans in close races appear to have benefited slightly more from a “Kavanaugh bump” than Democrats.

In Indiana’s Senate race, Mike Braun, the Republican running against the incumbent Democrat, Joe Donnelly, was trailing Donnelly in Facebook interactions for the two weeks leading up to Sept. 27, the day that Blasey testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

For nearly three weeks following the testimony, Braun led Donnelly on Facebook by a significant margin.

In the week of Sept. 30, the period following Blasey’s testimony when the Senate would vote to confirm Kavanaugh, interactions on the Facebook pages of Republican Senate candidates shot up by 64 percent. Democratic Senate candidates saw an increase of just 30 percent.

Republicans in toss-up races may have benefited even more from the Kavanaugh effect. Among the nine most competitive Senate races, interactions on Facebook for Republicans rose by 94 percent during the week of Sept. 30. Interactions for Democrats in those races remained flat.

— What’s a “Like” Worth?

Political strategists disagree about the importance of social media popularity. Some think it amounts to a kind of real-time voter sentiment index, while others play it down as, at most, one piece of a successful campaign.

“Retweets don’t vote,” Strauss of Swing Left said. “All of this social engagement is really just a proxy for the results that matter, which is what happens at the polls on Nov. 6.”

For Republicans who are worried about a wave of progressive enthusiasm sweeping Democrats to victory, though, the data from swing district social media accounts may be comforting.

“The Democrats are constantly saying, ‘Oh, there’s this huge sea of angry Democratic voters and they’re ready to erupt,'” said Rory McShane, a Republican digital strategist. “There’s just as much, if not more, enthusiasm on the Republican side, and that’s seen by how much these people are doing online.”

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