Can You Tweet Your Way to the Oval Office?

Good question.

Social Media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat may not directly decide the election, but it’s clear social media has been a powerful driver of ‘the 2016 election conversation’ so far. When you look at the recent growth rates of social media followers by each candidate, social media appears to be a good bellwether of a candidate’s mo’ or atrophy. Some candidates are hitting it out of the park while others are pushing the “fail” button.

Social Media Power Index

In early December, I started tracking the candidates’ social media followers growth rates to prepare for an election panel discussion for Fortune. I built on this research by Intermarkets from September 2015 that detailed each candidate’s followers for Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and added my tallies of the candidates’ social media follower totals for these platforms on December 1st and most recently, January 26th. I was curious whether growth rates in social followers over this period would be an indicator of polling/voter opinion and candidates’ momentum.

I said at the time, if the 2008 Presidential Election was coined the Facebook Election,

Then 2016 should be called the “Social Media Revolution Election.” My reasoning was simple: the dynamics of social media are not only impacting the social media conversation/ecosystem but appear to highly influencing digital and traditional media coverage, especially in the early and important formative stages of the primary season before and during Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The intersection and amplification occurring between these media types, appears to create an even larger effect for those candidates that are on the leading edge of social media tactics.

My brief analysis and perspective follows. Two of the most striking findings:

1. Only two candidates are seeing accelerating growth in social media followers since September— Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. And it may be in part driven by the fact that they are reinforcing each other.

2. Only one candidate has seen more than a 50% growth rate in followers during this time — Bernie Sanders (his total followers was up a whopping 79%).

Trump has the most followers, 12.2 million, (more than 4X his closest current Republican rival) and is a ‘power user of social media’. A power user of social media deftly combines frequency of thousands of social actions (updates and posts and engagement of those posts by others) with an ‘authentic voice’ (you believe it is The Donald himself using Twitter without a filter). Trump also effectively uses controversy — a key driver of growth in social media followers generally. The fact that he is polarizing drives his growth. He is an embodiment of ‘media crack.’ Cruz has been honing frequency, voice and some controversy to drive growth too. Cruz’s followers momentum will be particularly interesting to watch over the next month or two; how will Cruz-Trump and Cruz-Rubio social media rivalries (fostering controversy) play out and impact the candidate’s social followers growth rates.

Coveting controversy runs counter to traditional election strategy. Candidates usually shy away from controversy in order to appeal to the widest group. Whether the connection between social media growth and controversy will translate to a winning combination in the general election and how people (and who) actually vote is too early to tell. How does traditional modes of campaigning, ground organization/got out my vote, debate performances, gaffs and great moments, etc., reflect, bolster or counter social media strength/or lackthereof — what will translate into enthusiasm for voting?

At the same time, Bernie Sanders, now at 4.3 million followers also uses frequency, ‘authentic voice’ and clarity of message to drive considerable social media engagement.

Here is how most of the candidates stack up in terms of total followers:

And, now the social media follower growth rates by candidate since September:

I did not track Christie, Kasich and Fiorina at the midpoint, December 1st, therefore followers growth rates only captures the entire period. Chart by @alisaamiller

Five noteworthy results:

1. Sanders’ overall growth rate since September is phenomenal. Of course, he started from a lower relative base, but it’s impressive none-the-less.

2. Trump and Cruz are the only candidates with accelerating social media followership growth rates over the two periods, September-December, and December to January 26th.

3. The rapid decline of Ben Carson is clear. Carson’s decline in growth rate for social media followers drops from 28% from September to December 1st to just 4% growth (the lowest of any candidate tracked) from December 1st to January 26th. This trend tracks with his rapid decline in national polls. SEE FiveThirtyEight’s average polls released last week.

4. Cruz has a slight lead on Rubio in social followers growth rates. Both are neck in neck in social media followers totals, consistent with their current stance of competing very hard and directly with each other in the early Primary states. Coming out of Iowa and the early Primary states, continuing to watch what happens to each of these candidate’s followers growth rates and the social engagement of their followers, could tell us a lot about who is driving the conversation and has the most momentum.

5. Hillary Clinton has had consistent, steady growth since September and has the second largest social media following overall at 8.3 million second only to Trump. Of the entire field tracked across Democrats and Republicans, her combined growth rate is third, behind Sanders and Trump. This is also notable given she is building on the second largest follower base across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Candidates Followers by Platform:

Across all the candidates tracked, as of January 26th, over 38 million people are following these candidates across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The total growth rate of followers across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram was 38%.

Candidates with the highest overall totals have a measurable presence on Instagram.

Now consider, these results in light of this year’s analysis from Edelman’s Trust Barometer, specifically on what media forms are trusted by the most people. Social Media is the lowest, Search is highest, followed by Traditional Media while Online Media is gaining ground.

How many times in recent days have we seen a tweet or a back in forth of tweets between the candidates, flashed on the screen or highlighted in a digital story?

Such as this:

Answer: A LOT.

Certainly Tweets and exchanges are regular fodder on television and cable news as well as digital media. And many items come up when you search “Donald Trump Tweets”, (128 million results) including this from The New York Times: Donald Trump’s Twitter Insults: The Complete List (So Far)

Or this by Vox, This Chart Shows Just How Many Sexist Slurs Trump Supporters are Tweeting at Megyn Kelly, an analysis of the derivative social activity by Donald Trump’s followers.

And Bernie Sanders is Running a 9 Day-Snapchat Ad Campaign in Iowa from the Wall Street Journal.

Not to say any of these aren’t legitimate stories.

But what is driving what here? Social media is tailor made to REFLECT, DRIVE AND/OR SUPPORT HORSE RACE COVERAGE that the traditional and digital media craves. Social flows across online and traditional media and back again.

A new model is being created in real time and we are all still adjusting and adapting to it: the public, the media, the platforms and the candidates.

What does this mean for holding candidates accountable?

It remains to be seen. But there is a lot of work for the media, platforms and the public to do from here to improve knowledge about the candidates and THE ISSUES. We are in early days to understand how to respond to the conversation cycle and the candidates’ ability to drive the conversation in ways that would not have been heard of even five years ago.

And one guy, Donald Trump, so far, has dominated much of the conversation, a cycle between social media, online media, and traditional media and back again.

I have heard some people lament this phenomenon.

But it’s far bigger than one candidate.

Ponder this: Remember when Barack Obama literally rewrote the ‘how to’ book on using online data, outreach and engagement to help drive success in two Presidential campaigns? And now everyone strives to employ those tactics and more to this election cycle.

Now consider the Presidential Election of 2020 and what lessons learned all those candidates will take from Election 2016 from Trump, Sanders and others.

What would happen if all the candidates use frequency, voice and potentially nearly daily controversy to drive momentum in future election cycles? Then what will that mean for discourse and our public conversation?

The optimist in me says (which usually wins out in my world view), that an evolving, powerful combination of the public, candidates, issues, news media, the social media platforms and new technological and civic solutions will perfect and improve our election decision making process.

And I’ll do my best to drown out that little voice of pessimism in me that says, maybe #Kayne2020 isn’t so far-fetched after all.