Surviving the TweetWaves™

The ECHO: Weekly Roundup of Political Discussion on Twitter (June 21–27, 2018)

My recap of the political week on Twitter in the United States is available on the PEORIA Project website. The week was driven by the ongoing debate over immigration, which moved to the U.S. House of Representatives with significant engagement by President Trump. This activity drove Trump’s related tweet volume up slightly and in the House significantly.

Democrats found equal footing with Republicans on the platform this week, while maintaining a 6-percent edge in the generic congressional ballot. More detail on the Senate and House Races is available in the tipsheet as well as a shift to a line graph, which provides easier tracking of endangered incumbents.

But as The ECHO wraps this week, I’d like to take a step back and provide some overall perspective on what we learned since the last week of August about politics and Twitter in the United States. Deeper analyses are included in the quarterly reports but you’re busy so let’s keep it short. I think there are three main concepts that our data have demonstrated and it provides a roadmap for surviving TweetWaves™.

Trump is Aquaman

No one in American politics dominates the platform like President Donald J. Trump. Republican incumbents can get a bump from the president if he tweets out support for you. However, as mentioned above, it is much more powerful in reverse as political Twitter appears to respond more to negativity and outrage rather than support and celebration. As you can see below, Trump dominates the political landscape and, when he chooses to engage, overwhelms both parties and chambers of Congress.

All that said, for Democrats, engaging Trump is perilous as well. Endangered incumbents in states or districts where Trump is strong brings about a strong boomerang effect of greater tweet volume. The TweetWaves™ he can generate are overwhelming and political managers will never have clients with enough followers, stature, or money to compete. However, there are times where safer Democrats have taken on Trump, like Kamala Harris has, to great effect and long-term brand-building.

My advise for professionals: unless you are absolutely safe politically, do not attack Trump on Twitter. His supporters are more engaged than yours and it will create long-term problems for your re-election. Better to ignore him, which is what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos did and allow Aquaman to create TweetWaves™ for someone else.

Data Courtesy of Crimson Hexagon

Cresting is Not Winning

The pervasive view among digital strategists is that breaking through the noise of a campaign cycle is a sign of a good campaign. But on Twitter, if you’re trending, you’re probably losing. This is clear particularly if you are a politician or public figure, and even more if you are engaged with President Trump, the dominant political player on Twitter.

In the Senate, Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Bob Corker (R-TN) both took on Trump and drew disproportionately high volume of tweets of support and opposition. Ultimately, the high volume of Twitter chatter was a sign of weakness and both decided not to seek re-election. Moving toward the fall campaign, the races to watch are Bill Nelson (D-FL), Dean Heller (R-NV), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), all of which average over 11,000 related tweets weekly. The next cohort avarages below 8,000.

Data Courtesy of Crimson Hexagon

In the House, Darrell Issa (R-CA-49) was our tweet volume leader through mid-January 2018 when he decided to step down. Again, the noise was a reflection of the race even when polling was inconsistently available in the public domain. Based on the data, the top race to watch moving forward is Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA-48), who averages over 10,000 related tweets per week. The next group of four average about 3,000.

Data Courtesy of Crimson Hexagon

My advise for political managers: watch for high-volume TweetWaves™ over time against opponents and benchmark campaigns. Don’t obsess over daily changes but look for bumps that change the dynamic. Recognize that you will likely not be able to get your candidate to the trending list unless something has gone wrong.

Surf the Issues

A much safer way to engage Twitter audiences is to ride trending news and policy debate hashtags. Bill Nelson has done this with strong effect, without engaging Trump directly, rallying supporters on issues like this week’s immigration family separation crisis. Conversation on these topics is already built-in and ready for an elected official or candidate to jump into the fray. Staying on-topic and not making it personal is a clear way to boost visibility without attracting a problematic TweetWave™.

My advise for professionals: this underdeveloped part of my research is, perhaps, the most encouraging for political managers. While attacking Trump or your opponent will engage your supporters it also engages theirs, resulting in a face-off without political gains. The better move, particularly on a platform that skews as negative as Twitter, is to hop on a trending topic with a solution or gambit that does not directly raise the ire of the president and does not give your opponent a chance to neutralize your effort.

Author’s note: The ECHO wraps up publication this week and I would like to thank everyone for their academic support, financial backing, and your readership since late August 2017. I learned a lot about where Twitter lives in American politics and elections by producing this analysis and companion tip-sheets each week, and I hope you did, too.

“The ECHO” has been a publication of The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM). It has been funded by a donation by GSPM alumnus William H. Madaway and through a reduced-cost license to Crimson Hexagon. All data from this post, as well as our methodology, is available on our PEORIA Project website. Also available on our website are the two editions of The ECHO Quarterly, summarizing the key principles this research can teach campaigns and elected officials.