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Trump Is Winning Twitter: Does It Matter?

Sep 22, 2016
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SMITH BRAIN TRUST — Retweets aren't necessarily endorsements, and they definitely aren’t votes. So what can Twitter tell us about the 2016 presidential election? Maybe more than you think, new research from the University of Maryland suggests. For starters, Republican nominee Donald Trump is winning — at Twitter anyway — over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

Marketing professor Wendy Moe at the Robert H. Smith School of Business and Sarah Oates at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, authors of a working paper focused on presidential campaign media coverage and tweeting, say Trump has been driving the conversation with his frequent tweeting, which eclipses that of Clinton by about 21 messages per day. They say Trump isn’t just a prolific tweeter, he is also prolifically tweeted about. “We pulled 955,193 tweets that named Trump and one of our keywords relating to issues or personality,” the authors say. “We pulled 272,579 tweets for Clinton using same keywords.” Few tweets that mention Trump and his most unpopular policies also mention Clinton, suggesting his critics aren't simultaneously voicing support for his opponent. 

The New York businessman is winning more than Twitter. The researchers also studied overall media coverage, and identified Trump's long-standing dominance of news pages. They call it his "unearned media," or what reporters described, as recently as last week, as “getting played.”

A record-shattering 100 million people are expected to watch the first presidential debate between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton on Monday, a tally previously achieved only by Super Bowls and 1983’s M*A*S*H finale. Millions will watch with one eye on the broadcast and the other on Twitter, searching for a hint of which candidate is gaining traction among voters.

Instead of providing a window to predicting the next president, Twitter is better analyzed as an amplifier of candidate brands (policy positions) and messages, Moe and Oates say. Rewinding to the primaries, traditional media outlets played their customarily large role in amplifying and spreading “political brand elements,” such as Trump’s immigration stance, the authors say. Social media subsequently further “amplified this brand through a focus on immigration that was stronger than the volume on messages in other issues examined in this study.”

So far in the campaigns, the authors say social media discussions have “tended to follow main events and issues of the campaign, demonstrating that the traditional nature of the campaign was intact: Politicians led, media covered and the public followed.”

Messages sometimes take a different path, however, like when candidate Trump tweets about immigration policy to influence the public directly and in effect, bypasses the news outlets. The paper’s title, “Donald Trump and the ‘Oxygen of Publicity’: Branding, Social Media and Mass Media in the 2016 Presidential Primaries," reflects the authors’ measurement of Trump campaign Twitter dominance and its implications.

Even though much of what is being said and tweeted about Trump might not be positive, much of it has worked in his favor, sucking the oxygen out of the room for his many primary rivals. (The authors suggest the effect of Trump-rhetoric extremism corresponds with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s conviction that the media gave credence to extremism through “the oxygen of publicity.”)

Trump, with his @realDonaldTrump account, is setting up the general election as a case study of sorts into how the Twitter effect translates to vote totals. Smith marketing professor Hank Boyd says it’s too late for Clinton to try and dent Trump’s Twitter dominance. And it remains to be seen to what extent Twitter chatter translates to enthusiasm and draws people to the polls on Nov. 8.  

“But she can focus on other platforms, and her campaign made a great move in this regard by releasing a very clever auto-play spot on Clinton’s Facebook and Instagram, as well as Twitter,” Boyd says. The silent ad features deaf activist Nyle DiMarco calling for people to “use their voices” and vote in November.

But Twittersphere aside, Smith professor and economist Peter Morici writes in an op-ed this week that Trump remains a long shot. “Similarly, his strength with blue collar men is likely not enough to overcome his weakness among more-educated, middle-class women in several other (than Pennsylvania) battleground states — even if not by such a wide margin.

Business Takeaways

What can business leaders take from the findings of Moe and Oates? They should consider more carefully the way commercial brands travel through the media ecosystem, the authors say. A brand drawing negative publicity from traditional news reporting will draw “a corresponding depth attention on social media” and “attract an irrationally large amount of attention.”

Two years ago, for example, General Motors’ delayed ignition switch recall sparked a brand crisis that reverberated and amplified through traditional-to-social media platforms. Beyond a single social media post or a particular ad campaign going viral, marketers should be thinking in terms of “how and why a brand holds a particular place in a media ecology” connecting traditional media, new media and consumers, the authors say.

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business 

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty masters, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.