Data shows Twitter primary differs from the 'real world'

The emerging social media narrative may be missing the larger story of the 2020 campaign.

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By Dante Chinni

WASHINGTON — As voters and activists try to make sense of the enormous Democratic primary field, Twitter, where real-time “analysis” flows 24-7, has emerged as a go-to news portal.

But the narrative that is emerging there may be missing the larger story of the 2020 campaign, at least up to now.

The chatter on the social media platform suggests that the Democratic Party is lurching leftward — on everything from slavery reparations to socialism — but other data show a more moderate primary electorate is emerging and may end up selecting the nominee.

Take a look at which 2020 candidates were driving the conversation on Twitter through the month of June, according to data from Socially Mined, a digital marketing agency.

Take a look at which 2020 candidates were driving the conversation on Twitter through the month of June.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., leads with followers by a landslide — 17.7 million for him, versus 7.7 million for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 4.4 million for New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, 3.6 million for former Vice President Joe Biden and 3.4 million for California Sen. Kamala Harris. (Several candidates have multiple Twitter accounts, so Socially Mined combined their accounts in this analysis.)

Going by “engagement rate” on Twitter, a measure that looks at “likes” and “retweets” on the platform, the leader is Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, followed by Harris, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Warren and Biden.

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And looking at “mentions” on the platform, again it’s Sanders with a big lead, with more than 4.1 million mentions, compared to 3.5 million for Biden, 3.3 million for Warren, 2.7 million for Harris and 996,000 for Buttigieg.

That's a set of numbers that shows a Democratic Party in the mood for change and perhaps ready to move to the left philosophically. Bernie Sanders leads in two categories. Joe Biden leads in none. And Elizabeth Warren is ahead of Biden in two of the three.

When you look at “sentiment” among Twitter users in the Socially Mined data, the trend becomes even clearer. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Buttigieg, Warren, Booker, Sanders and Harris all had a higher percentage of “positive” tweets than Biden in June.

But before you let Twitter sort out the Democratic field completely, consider the latest polls of the enormous Democratic field. Most show Biden with a solid lead over his nearest competitor, and some of the margins are well into the double-digit range.

Before you let Twitter sort out the Democratic field completely, consider the latest polls of the enormous Democratic field.

Biden leads the field by 15 points in the latest USA Today/Suffolk poll. He’s up by 19 in the Politico/Morning Consult poll. And in the Real Clear Politics average of polls, Biden leads by 15 points over the field.

Yes, those numbers were gathered before this week’s debate, where Harris, in particular, had a good showing and Biden did not. But the social media data above was gathered mostly before the debates as well, from June 1 to June 28.

In other words, this is close to an apples-to-apples comparison in terms of the time frame. Nonetheless, the poll numbers don't match up particularly well with the figures from the 280-character "debate" appearing on people's smartphone and web browsers.

And the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll offered more evidence that Democratic primary voters are more politically moderate than Twitter might suggest. That survey took a deeper look at those who said they planned to vote in the Democratic primary and it did not find an electorate that was running to the left.

That is a split right down the middle between liberal and moderate/conservative voters, 48 percent for each group.

That is a split right down the middle between liberal and moderate/conservative voters, 48 percent for each group.

The NBC News/WSJ poll also doesn't seem to reveal the desire for a drastic remaking of the country. Only 16 percent of those surveyed said Democracy in America needs a complete overhaul. Another 41 percent called for major changes and 32 percent said minor changes would suffice. Meanwhile, 10 percent said it was working pretty well as is.

Those are numbers that call for change, hardly a surprise for the party that is out of power in Washington and eager to change the occupant of the White House, but not revolution.

It's still early, of course. Things can change quickly, particularly as the debates continue and when the votes begin to be cast. But so far there are two Democratic primary races going on in the public eye: A battle that is primarily taking place on the left in the social media world, and a more moderate view in the larger, offline world.

As the primary fight continues to keep those two visions of the Democratic electorate in mind. The candidates they favor and the issues that concern them might look quite different.