VEEPSTAKES, VISUALIZED

by William Powers and Soroush Vosoughi

Lately, it often seems the biggest question on the minds of American voters is who Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will choose as running mates.

That’s because one very influential group of people has been focused on the Veepstakes: campaign journalists. How focused? Here at The Electome project, we ran an analysis of all election stories published online in the last few weeks by about 30 influential media outlets ranging from the The New York Times to Fox News to BuzzFeed to Newsmax. As the chart below shows, the percentage of stories about the vice-presidential selection process rose from 5% of all election coverage to nearly 35%. That’s a big number, especially when you consider the major issues at play in this election, including terrorism, immigration, the Supreme Court, guns and race, that could be the driving the coverage.

Media Coverage of the Veepstakes

Are we surprised that political reporters are transfixed by the Veepstakes? Nah. Politics is a competition and the Veepstakes is a game-within-the-game. Campaign journalists spend their days in the same bubble as the candidates. If the latter are focused on X, the former will turn X into stories. With the conventions fast approaching, Clinton and Trump both need to find a good running mate: X = Veepstakes.

But what’s top-of-mind in the bubble isn’t necessarily what matters most to the public. So we wondered: Are the citizens who will decide this election in November equally obsessed with the Veep vetting?

To find out, we turned to the huge, mostly public election discussion on Twitter, which is playing a major role in this election. Twitter is not a perfect mirror of the electorate by any means, but it’s a slice of the public that tends to be politically engaged, and its user base includes people — young ones in particular —whom traditional polls often miss.

Our team has developed a way to take the roughly 500 million tweets posted daily and isolate those that are about the U.S. election, some 500,000 per day. We then analyze them to see which election topics are on people’s minds.

It turns out the Twitter public hasn’t been nearly as obsessed with the VP selection process as the journalists. Around July 4th, when the Veepstakes figured in one-third of all election news coverage, it was mentioned in less than 3% of all election comments on Twitter:

Which VP contenders were those people talking about? We took the politicians most widely reported by the media as being on the candidates’ shortlists, five for Clinton and six for Trump, and looked at how often they were discussed on Twitter. Among potential Clinton running mates, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the most mentioned by far, followed by Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.

Democratic Veepstakes in the Overall Election Conversation

Bear in mind that sheer volume of conversation about a Veep candidate does not necessarily indicate a positive view of that person. For instance, a closer look at the data shows that the spike in discussion of Tim Kaine was driven partly by people expressing negative views of his personal opposition to abortion. As the next chart shows, among users who have been following only Hillary Clinton among the presidential candidates (i.e. they don’t follow Sanders or Trump), Kaine was discussed even more, and here the negative comments about his abortion views were especially prominent:

Veepstakes Among Clinton Followers

On the Republican side, Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich have dominated the Twitter Veepstakes, both in the election conversation overall and among those who follow only Trump. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst each spiked in recent days due to heavy media coverage of their meetings with Trump:

GOP Veepstakes in the Overall Election Conversation
Veepstakes Among Trump Followers

Of course, none of this tells us who will stand beside Clinton and Trump at the party conventions and out on the campaign trail. The winners of the Veepstakes could be people who have barely been mentioned in the news or social media. This is a game in which statistics are not particularly helpful. However, there’s one Veepstakes prediction we can make with 100% confidence: It will be over soon.

William Powers is a journalist and author. Soroush Vosoughi is a postdoctoral researcher at MIT. Both work on The Electome project at the Laboratory for Social Machines, a research group at the MIT Media Lab. Financial support comes from the Knight Foundation and from Twitter, which also provides access to its data. Uzra Khan and Prashanth Vijayaraghavan also contributed to this piece.

Photo: Associated Press