Trump vs. Clinton vs. Sanders: Who is Winning the Election on Social Media?

By Katie Meyer

And then there were three.

Underdogs John Kasich and Ted Cruz bowed out after crushing defeats in Indiana this week and the primaries are almost over. On social media, there’s already a clear winner.

Since November, the candidates have increased their engagement, refined their messages on social media, and grown their audiences. On the cusp of the final nominations, who comes out ahead?

Trump’s Frenzied Legions

Donald Trump leads both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in terms of social media in one of the most telling metrics: engagement rate. The GOP outsider receives more likes, comments, replies, and retweets relative to his number of fans and followers, giving him a high engagement rate.

Trump’s followings on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are gaining momentum: the expected Republican nominee has felt a surge in engagement ahead of May 3.

The Crowdbabble graph above shows Trump’s engagement rate on Twitter over the past 30 days. Trump receives more than double the daily favourites, retweets, replies, and mentions that Hillary does.

The social media competition between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton has been close since the beginning. Back in January, Bernie seemed clinched for the nomination due to his astronomical engagement rate. Bernie won Indiana, making it clear to Hillary’s following that the race is far from over. But her engagement rate has slid across platforms.

The engagement graph from Crowdbabble below shows Hillary’s engagement rate over the same period:

Bernie Sanders enjoys a high engagement rate, particularly on Instagram (the youngest platform). With a 193% engagement rate over the past 30 days, his 1.3 million Instagram followers generate a ton of impressions. Bernie’s top posts have attracted almost 100,000 likes each.

On Instagram, Hillary attracted 1.6 million likes and comments since April 4, 1 million fewer than Bernie. Maybe she should switch up her #nofilter strategy and try Clarendon, Bernie’s favourite.

Bernie’s volume of total engagements (likes, replies, etc) has been higher than ever before across platforms, but his engagement rate overall is down — #feelingtheburn seems exhausting.

Below, a graph showing Bernie Sanders’ sliding engagement rate on Twitter.

Despite the slump, even tired Bernie supporters have been more engaged with his Twitter content than Hillary’s have been with hers. Hillary’s average total Twitter engagements per day (44,580) is dwarfed by Bernie’s 82,298.

Neither Bernie nor Hillary come close to Trump’s engagement numbers on any platform. Below, the average engagement rates for the past 30 days for all three candidates on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

On Facebook, Trump enjoys an engagement rate of 218% — on Instagram, it’s 196% (with 2.9 million likes and comments to Sanders’ 2.5 million). Due to Trump’s high follower numbers, his astronomical engagement rates go further: he has a larger dedicated fanbase on Facebook and Instagram than the other candidates. Every like, retweet, and share is seen by the followers of all those followers, generating more impressions. Once the race for the Democratic nomination is over, Trump’s social fanbase will continue to explode.

Follower War

Why does Hillary trail Trump and Sanders in engagement rate? On Twitter, the candidate has gained 1.1m followers since her landmark faceoff with Bernie Sanders in the January 17 debate. Where’s their enthusiasm? Their equivalent of #feelingthebern?

Hillary’s low engagement rate might be explained by her large and diverse following — many of Hillary’s followers on Twitter date from her previous presidential campaign or her work as a state senator. These followers did not find her social media accounts solely to support this run, as opposed to Sanders’ or Trumps’ fans and followers.

Even with Hillary’s impressive follower growth rate, the social landscape of the 2016 Presidential Election has shifted rapidly. In January, Hillary Clinton held the largest share of followers across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Since then, Trump and Bernie have surpassed her on two of three platforms.

The presumed Republican nominee has seen exponential follower growth on Twitter and Facebook in particular. The Crowdbabble graph below shows his jump in followers on Facebook since January 17, 2016.

His increase is more dramatic than Hillary’s. Trump’s surge across platforms has given him 16.7 million total followers. Below, the number of followers and fans for each candidate on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Hillary has 10.6 million total fans and followers, almost 6 million fewer than Trump. Bernie Sanders’s fans might be engaged, but they’re fewer in number: he has an audience of 7.5 million across the three platforms. How did Trump develop such a huge following so quickly?

Messaging From the Battlefield

Whether or not Trump’s audience is composed of earnest fans or of Democrats who find humour in his content is impossible to say. It’s clear, however, that underestimating the dedication of his audience is no longer prudent. The candidate that began as a joke — whose social channels were dominated by jeers from skeptics on both sides of the — now has the largest number of dedicated fans.

Trump’s engagement peak on Twitter was on April 26, 2016, when he garnered 243,643 favourites and 85,244 retweets. In a series of 16 tweets, Trump thanked the states that had recently voted for him, tweeted “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” twice, and lashed out at the New York Times. Trump’s high volume of messaging alternating between vitriol, promises, and gratitude, works. The Crowdbabble word cloud of his tweets shows that “will”, “thank”, and “great” were his most used keywords over the past 30 days.

Criticism of “crooked” and “lyin’” politicians, and the “rigged” system, are also part of his core messages. As shown in the most recent primaries, the many followers who respond to Trump’s content don’t just like and retweet it: they express their dedication in the voting booth as well.

Trump’s strategy is simple yet effective. In contrast, Bernie and Hillary tweet more, about more. The two Democrats sent 390+ tweets between April 4 and May 4. Trump tweeted 286 times in the same period.

Unlike Trump, Bernie has more than three dominating keywords: several tones and ideas are competing for prominence in his most used terms on Twitter. While Trump aims for simplicity, Bernie embraces complexity:

Urgency is the dominating theme in Bernie’s tweets. “Must”, “need”, “fight”, “today”, and “vote” are prominent: Bernie’s focus on people, work, and minimum wage also shine through. The content strategy seems to be working. Bernie’s Twitter following grew by 12.3% since April 4, as shown in the Crowdbabble graph below:

Like Bernie, Hillary has chosen complexity over slogans on Twitter. Hillary also emits a sense of urgency, with “must” and “should” as similarly dominating themes — in this case, not aimed at her Democrat opponent, but at Trump.

As with Bernie, people and equality are major facets of her campaign. Health, families, and anti-violence policies are also a focus on Twitter. Wedged between two libertarians (of sorts), Hillary has branded herself as the gun control- and family-centered candidate.

Still, Trump’s aggressive and simpler messaging seems to be going farther. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric is firing up his online following (on every platform but Twitter). Bernie’s followers are rallying around his more measured and complex language. Hillary has not enjoyed the same success on Twitter using the same tactic, with an engagement rate of just 24%. The cause could be a split in content strategy: Hillary has been pushed to appeal to both anti-Trump Republicans and Bernie-loving Democrats. Dragged to both the right and the left, Hillary’s mixed messages might be losing her core Democrat audience.

The table below shows Hillary’s most successful Facebook posts from April 22 to May 4 2016.

Hillary does best when she aims at Trump: this appeals to anti-Trump Republicans, Bernie supporters, and her core audience. If she continues to position herself as the anyone-but-Trump candidate, and simplifies her content to appeal to her core followers, she could capture the audience she needs to win.

The Next POTUS?

In six short months, the social media battlefield will be quiet and there will be just one left: either Trump, Hillary, or Bernie will be number 45. On social media, Trump is winning the election. He has more followers who are more enthusiastic than either of his Democrat rivals. But Bernie Sanders isn’t far behind: his followings are smaller, but deeply committed to taking the nomination — or at least committed to liking and commenting on his campaign online.

To catch up to Trump and compete with Hillary, Bernie would have to build his following online aggressively without losing their devotion, adding more than 9 million followers. Bernie has positioned himself as the candidate who can beat Hillary. Hillary has positioned herself as the candidate who can beat Trump.

Hillary Clinton’s following is large enough to push her towards the nomination, if only they could rally around the candidate as they did after the January 17 debate. Hillary’s social media following is a sleeping giant that could cause a massive upset online. If he candidate could find a way to balance her messaging — between fighting Trump, appealing to Berners, and connecting with her core supporters — she might have a shot at higher engagement rates on all platforms. And a better chance at the nomination.

As it stands, if people vote the way they click on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States.


All data visualizations made in Crowdbabble. This post is part of a series on the 2016 Presidential Election .

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