The Race Card — Back in Play

by Andrew Heyward and Uzra Khan

“Hillary Clinton is a bigot who sees people of color only as votes, not as human beings worthy of a better future.”

— Donald Trump, speaking in Jackson, Mississippi on Wednesday 8/24

“Donald Trump has built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia. He is taking radical hate groups mainstream.”

— Hillary Clinton, speaking in Reno, Nevada on Thursday 8/25

After receding to a relatively low simmer earlier this month, Race has boiled up again as a campaign issue, coinciding with Donald Trump’s attempt to reach out to minority voters. And Immigration, a related hot-button issue, is spiking as well, as Trump appears to modify his hard-line stance.

Here at the Laboratory for Social Machines, part of the MIT Media Lab, our Electome project has been tracking the social conversation about campaign issues since last year. With access to the full output of Twitter, our collection of algorithms can identify tweets about the election and classify them according to topic, candidate, and other relevant filters. (More about Electome here.)

In the two weeks following the parties’ national conventions, from August 1st through the 14th, only 6% of the issue-related conversations involved racial issues, well behind Foreign Policy/National Security, Terrorism, and Guns.

But look what’s happened in the past eight days, since August 18th. Race’s share of the conversation increased to an average of 17%. On August 20th, two days after Trump first raised the question he has now repeatedly aimed at voters of color, “What do you have to lose?”, race eclipsed national security — consistently the leading issue in this election so far — with a 24% share of the conversation to national security’s 22%. Yesterday, after the candidates traded some of their most caustic attacks around the race issue, the margin was even bigger, 26% to 15% for national security.

Electome’s Incivility Index, which tracks tweets that contain profanity, ethnic and sexual slurs, insults, and calls to violence, spiked on August 20th and 25th as well, with a full 61% of uncivil tweets on the 20th related to race.

The share of talk about immigration has also started to rise significantly as Trump adopts a seemingly more conciliatory position. Yesterday, immigration was the most tweeted-about election issue in the overall Twitterverse, commanding nearly a third (32%) of issue-related tweets. Race’s share of yesterday’s conversation was 26%.

Top 3 election-related issues on 8/25 in relation to one another

For unique followers of Trump and Clinton, however — people who follow one or the other but no other presidential candidate — there was even more conversation about race than about immigration yesterday: 29% versus 26% for Trump’s unique followers, and 33% versus 28% for Clinton’s.

The race card is back in play, with each candidate betting that he or she has the stronger hand.

Andrew Heyward is a visiting researcher at the MIT Media Lab’s Laboratory for Social Machines . Uzra Khan, a recent graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is spending the summer as a project manager there. Soroush Vosoughi and Prashanth Vijayaraghavan, researchers at the Laboratory for Social Machines, developed the analytics for this post.