What Unity? Twitter Reveals a Great Divide Within Both Political Parties

Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
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Bernie Sanders dominates Snapchat, House Democrats just discovered Periscope and your grandma is starting to share her vacation on Facebook Live. Social media isn’t “mediating” life anymore; it is the primary mode of communication for Americans across class, race, gender and age. So when there is a Twitter analysis of the Republican and Democratic conventions, pundits, predictors and the press should all stand up and take notice.

The Qorvis MSLGroup, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C., did some of the dusty old grunt work that used to be the meat and potatoes of old-school media outlets. It tracked down delegates from the Republican and Democratic conventions (more than 2,800), found the ones who actually had Twitter accounts and basically put its ears to the ground to listen to what delegates talked about over the last two weeks. What the firm found shows that the “unity” both parties try to put on display onstage and for television is not really happening across Twitter—the results of which could spell chaos or doom for both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump this fall.


Below are two tables collecting some of the main data and tweets from delegates at both conventions. They break down volume amount and most popular hashtags, as well as which delegations were spending more time tweeting than actually listening to who was onstage.

Wyeth Ruthven, Vice President, Qorvis MSLGROUP

The tweet breakdown from the Republican National Convention shows how the Ted Cruz and #NeverTrump movements maintain a structural hold on the Republican Party even if they are in the numeric minority.

How does that play out? The tweet tables show that two of the loudest and most active delegations during the RNC were from Kansas and Arizona. Ted Cruz won the Kansas caucus outright, snagging 13 delegates to Trump’s six. In Arizona, Trump crushed Cruz in a winner-take-all contest. However, thanks to some quick thinking on Cruz’s behalf, and the Trump campaign’s absolute inability to read the instructions, more pro-Cruz delegates were elected at the state party conference in Arizona than pro-Trump delegates.


The Twitter imprint of Ted Cruz was greater than his actual popularity in the party, but his supporters nevertheless drove coverage and content analysis of the convention. Think of it like an artist who has a huge Twitter following but hasn’t dropped a meaningful album in years.

“Vote your conscience,” Ted Cruz’s mic-drop moment during the GOP convention, was bound to be huge, but the fact that it was the biggest Twitter moment of the week among delegates guaranteed that it was covered as a turning point instead of a blip. It is also telling that although Trump spent seemingly every waking moment on Twitter, it was Cruz’s Twitter-following delegates who were pumping out the most tweets.


On the Democratic side, Twitter delegates were a bit more active and also more targeted in their comments and goals.

Roughly the same number of RNC and DNC delegates were on Twitter, but Democrats tweeted more: a lot more. If tweets were a measure of enthusiasm, the gap was quite huge, and it favors Democrats heading into the fall election.


Looking into this overall collection of tweets also spells out an interesting split, though, which the Democrats may still have to contend with this fall. Because the Democratic primary is more proportional than the GOP’s winner-take-all method, there were more Sanders delegates actively tweeting among delegates than there were, say, Cruz or Rubio supporters at the RNC. Which is why, on the first night of the convention, something like this could happen:


That was just one of many attempted revolts by pro-Sanders delegates to actually nominate former Ohio state Sen. (and big Bernie supporter) Nina Turner as Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential nominee.

Now, this was doomed to failure, but it shows a level of organization and tension in the party that is more evident through social media than just polling. While pro-Cruz and #NeverTrump people may actually stay home, that simply takes them off the table. #FeelTheBern types seem to want to stay engaged in the process; they just don’t want Hillary Clinton.


This has the potential to be a Ralph Nader situation whereby disaffected Sanders supporters stay engaged in the election this fall, but vote for Green Party nominee Jill Stein or throw out a slew of write-in candidates. When a prominent voice like Turner's is still in the mix and refusing to endorse Clinton, this Twitter analysis at least suggests that online party unity for the Democrats may still be elusive.

To be fair, this is an analysis of a small segment of voters who are actually dedicated enough to take the time off work and pay their way to two conventions and suffer through unbearable heat in two cities. In other words, you have to be cautious about the generalizability and predictive power of these tweets. However, in a race where both errant and positive tweets become turning points in the campaign almost weekly, it would be equally naive to ignore these results.


While this research has only gone as far as the conventions, delegates are your hard-core party volunteers and influencers in campaigns back home. There is a good chance that if these delegate tweets are followed over the next 100 days, they will mirror or possibly predict what will finally happen on Election Day.

Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.

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