The horse race of ideas at the finish line

Tracking the issues Americans did (and didn’t) talk about in the 2016 election

By Electome

John Dalby, The Quorn Hunt in Full Cry: Second Horses, after Henry Alken.

For decades, news coverage of U.S. presidential elections has been focused on the so-called “horse race” — polls, predicted outcomes, fundraising — rather than on the policy issues that ultimately matter most.

The Electome, a project of the Laboratory for Social Machines at the MIT Media Lab, was created with the aim of changing this. About a year ago, with generous support from the Knight Foundation and Twitter, we launched this effort to make sense of the sprawling democratic conversation driven by new technologies, social media in particular. We did not set out to ignore the traditional horse race, which is impossible. But our focus would be the issues, or what we call the Horse Race of Ideas. We would do this mostly through the prism of Twitter, which hosted the largest public conversation about this election, often serving as the nerve center of the campaign.

We built a new kind of data machine that allowed us to analyze all election-related tweets, as well as election news coverage from 30 major media organizations. Then, in collaboration with several leading news outlets, we began producing journalism fueled by our data, with particular attention to the issues.

An early image from the Electome that shows how spikes in Twitter conversation around mass shootings.

Our first piece, published in late 2015 with The Washington Post, showed how the major issues waxed and waned in prominence on Twitter. We looked at the impact of political events as well as non-political ones, such as mass shootings, on the issues.

Since then, we have continued improving our analytics, and our scientists have developed a powerful suite of tools that allow us to track the election in a variety of ways. One tool, called Chat Scans, is now the subject of an exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. And we have produced a steady stream of articles, of which you can see examples on our website.

We were honored to be named an official partner of the Commission on Presidential Debates, and built a dashboard to give journalists covering those important events access to our data. We launched the Social Pulse, an interactive viewer that tracked the most important moments in each debate. We also provided a data briefing book to each debate moderator with suggested questions for the candidates.

Of course, the 2016 campaign was largely not about policy at all. It was about personality, scandal and rhetorical warfare fought across cultural, socioeconomic and racial divides. It got very ugly, and the ugliness obscured the questions we continue to believe matter most for the future of this country — problems that, if solved, might help bridge those same divides.

With this in mind, on the eve of Election Day we return to the Horse Race of Ideas. In recent days we’ve taken a close look at our data going back to the beginning of 2016. We’ve identified the issues that generated the most conversation on Twitter, as well as several that were surprisingly overlooked. Here’s our recap of the issue race, three leaders and four laggards. For each issue we offer: a brief summary of how it fared in the election conversation since the start of 2016, an annotated graph, and a review of key moments.


Foreign policy/national security: 26 percent of issue tweets

Foreign policy/national security was by far the dominant election issue on Twitter throughout the campaign. A host of questions, from the current war in Syria to the use of nuclear weapons to divergent views on Russian leader Vladimir Putin, kept this issue firmly in the number-one spot, which in previous elections was often occupied by economic issues.

From January 2016 through the end of June, Foreign policy/national security claimed 22 percent of the election-related policy tweets. Around the nominating conventions, it gained steam, increasing to a 30 percent share at the end of October. For the entire year so far, this issue accounted for 26 percent of election-related policy Tweets.

  • The March 22 Brussels airport attack by ISIS drove Foreign policy/national security above a 55 percent share over of all policy discussion. This spike lasted just 72 hours, but during this time Trump-related tweets mentioning “Brussels” outnumbered Clinton-related tweets by a margin of 8–1.
  • In late July a series of campaign and news events converged to create a “double spike” beyond the 50 percent mark. On July 22, Wikileaks released 20,000 emails from within the Democratic National Committee, a story that quickly morphed into charges that the Russian government was responsible for the hack in an effort to favor Trump. The following week, as the Democratic National Convention played out before millions of TV viewers, the Gold Star Kahn family criticized Trump from the podium, and Trump challenged the Russians to find the 30,000 Clinton emails that had gone missing.
  • The last and biggest spike of the year was sparked by a campaign event structured to focus on foreign policy topics: the Commander-in-Chief forum on August 8. Twitter response to the forum focused on a variety of military and terrorism-related topics. That same day, Trump gave an interview to Larry King Live on the state-owned Russian TV network RT, during which he criticized American foreign policy. Foreign policy/national security rose to a 60 percent share of policy tweets.
  • In recent weeks, the issue picked up again as a result of the presidential and vice-presidential debates, capturing 27 percent of the overall conversation from the beginning of October. It was supplanted at the top of the issue list only by the controversies over Trump’s tax returns and sexual behavior.

Immigration: 10 percent of issue tweets

Immigration was the second most-talked about issue on Twitter, due largely to Trump’s emphasis on building a wall to keep out Mexicans. At one point, the issue accounted for over 55 percent of policy-related tweets. Until this election, what to do about the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country was considered an important problem in need of a thoughtful solution, but not a national crisis requiring the construction of a wall. In 2016, most immigration spikes on Twitter were in response to news about the proposed wall, or his linking of immigrants to crime. When Hillary Clinton raised the immigration issue, vowing to accomplish comprehensive immigration reform in her first 100 days, the news was met with little discussion on Twitter. Trump’s more inflammatory remarks drove the immigration discussion, which overall from January through October represented 10 percent of policy-related tweets.

  • In mid-February, the Trump campaign released a TV ad featuring the father of a teen killed by an undocumented immigrant. Around the same time, he created confusion about his immigration stand by calling the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Act “great,” and expressing support for the so-called “Dreamers” for whom the law was passed.
  • On March 10, Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders discussed immigration reform during a Democratic debate.
  • On April 5, Trump released a plan to pay for the wall through tax remittances.
  • On September 1, Trump visited Mexico and spoke at a joint press conference with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, driving Immigration briefly to its highest-ever share of the election conversation, 55 percent.

Guns: 9 percent of issue tweets

The issue of Guns was highly sensitive to news events, whether about political and legal debates related to gun policy, or real-world violence. Overall from January to the end of October, the issue accounted for 9 percent of policy-related tweets.

  • In January, President Obama issued a series of executive actions designed to reduce gun violence and surmount what he described as congressional inaction on tougher gun laws. On January 4, the President tweeted out the message, “The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage. But they can’t hold America hostage.” On January 5, tweets about Guns spiked to 41 percent of all issue-related tweets, making it the most talked-about topic that day.
  • The June 12 massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, with 49 people killed and 53 wounded. The massacre touched off new debates in Congress and a filibuster by Senate Democrats demanding a vote on tougher gun laws. On June 20, the Senate rejected four new measures designed to curb gun sales. The shooting and its aftermath propelled Guns to the top of the issue list starting on June 12 — at 38 percent of all issue-related tweets — and it peaked on June 23, with a 48 percent share.
  • The final large spike in gun conversation came in August after Trump suggested that “Second Amendment people” might have to take action to stop Hillary Clinton from appointing judges who favor stricter gun measures — remarks that some saw as inciting gun owners to violence against her. In the tweet-storm that followed, Guns again spiked to the top of the list, commanding a 42 percent share of all issue-related conversation on August 10.
  • In the closing weeks of the campaign, Guns faded as an issue on Twitter, averaging a 6 percent share of the conversation for the month of October, below its average of 9 percent for the first ten months of the year.

Racial issues: 4 percent of issue tweets

Racial issues have generally simmered below the surface throughout this campaign year, comprising an average of only 4 percent of all issue-related tweets for the first ten months of 2016.

  • On March 12, the day after a Trump rally was canceled in Chicago following violent confrontations between protesters (some wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts) and his supporters, tweets about race spiked to 15 percent of the issue conversation.
  • In August, both nominees brought race directly into their campaigns. On August 18, Trump asked inner-city residents the provocative question, “What do you have to lose?”, suggesting their lives are currently of little worth. On August 27, after the candidates traded caustic attacks around race, Racial issues spiked to a 16 percent share, becoming briefly the third most-tweeted-about issue, just behind Immigration and Foreign policy/national security.

Environment/energy: 2 percent of issue tweets

Though a major policy issue in the world at large, Environment/energy did not loom large in this election. Even at those times when it was most discussed by the Twitter public, its share of the overall policy conversation was still small. Remarks by the two candidates, as opposed to real-world news events, were the main drivers of the discussion around this issue — but there weren’t many such remarks.

  • In a Democratic primary debate on January 17, Clinton said she was “outraged” by the Flint water crisis, producing the year’s first spike in this issue, albeit a small one.
  • On March 21, at a meeting with the editorial board of The Washington Post, Trump said he is “not a big believer in man-made climate change.”
  • In May, it was reported that a Trump company in Ireland had cited climate change in applying for a permit to build a sea wall at a golf resort. This story produced the most environment-related tweets of any of event this year.
  • Immediately after the first presidential debate in late September, many tweets noted that just 82 seconds of the discussion had been about climate change.

Healthcare: 2 percent of issue tweets

At just 2 percent of the overall policy discussion, Healthcare has not played a central role in this election. The issue saw frequent spikes during the primary period, particularly the debates. Since the party conventions, it has generally been in the background. One major exception: the announcement in late October that insurance premiums under the Affordable Care Act would increase dramatically in many states. This news, seized on by the Trump campaign, prompted Healthcare’s most dramatic spike of the year, at 20 percent of the policy discussion. However, after a few days, it faded.

  • The January 18 Democratic debate in Charleston, SC featured spirited exchanges on healthcare, particularly between Sanders, who argued for “Medicare for all,” and Clinton, who promised to “defend and build on the Affordable Care Act.”
  • On March 2, Trump announced his healthcare plan.
  • On May 12, Hillary moved left on healthcare, expressing support for public financing of health — roughly, the Sanders approach.
  • The October 25 announcement of the Obamacare premium increase gave the issue its largest spike in the first ten months of the year.

Education: 0 percent of issue tweets

It would be an understatement to say Education has not been a major issue in this election, particular since the party conventions. The two biggest education policy questions — debt-free tuition, widely discussed in the Democratic primary season thanks to Sanders’ focus on it; and the Common Core, criticized by Trump throughout the GOP primary season — faded once the general election started. Since July, Education has largely disappeared from the discussion. Overall this year, the issue accounted for less than 1 percent of policy tweets, which our system rounds off to zero percent.

  • On February 10, Trump tweeted: “I have been consistent in my opposition to Common Core. Get rid of Common Core — keep education local!”
  • In the second week of March, student debt was discussed in a Democratic debate, while the Common Core came up in a GOP debate, both prompting a rise in tweets.
  • On July 6, the Clinton campaign announced a proposal to eliminate tuition at in-state public colleges and universities for families with annual incomes up to $125,000. On the day of the announcement, 89 percent of tweets about education were associated with Clinton, as compared with 10 percent about Trump.

In closing

Though policy didn’t drive this election the way personality and scandal did, it strikes us as significant that the issues that were most discussed—Foreign policy/national security, Immigration and Guns—are all in some way related to fear, strife and perceived dangers from without or within. Meanwhile, many of the issues at the bottom of our list, including two discussed here—Healthcare and Education—are classic domestic policy questions concerned with how we look after each other and build healthy, happy lives.

Everyone knows that this was a negative election dominated by highly personal mudslinging. But we’re struck by the way in which, even on the policy side, negativity and fear won the day. Post-election, this may be the biggest challenge of all.