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North Carolina Twitter Data Offers Campaign Lessons

Tillis will be sworn in on Jan. 6. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It was neck-and-neck to the bitter end, the dollars flowing freely into harsh television attack ads with a price tag topping $81.6 million, the most expensive Senate race in 2014.  

Yet the battle in North Carolina may well have been won — and lost — on Twitter.  

Polls showed Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in the lead up to Election Day, but social conversations on Twitter told a different story.  

It was a story of Republican dominance, viral amplification and disciplined message coordination by party activists and outside groups such as the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, in the final weeks of the campaign. In the end, Republican Thom Tillis triumphed 49 percent to Hagan’s 47 percent.  

While a Rasmussen Reports poll found Hagan ahead 45 percent to 39 percent, and another poll by SurveyUSA gave Hagan a 3-point lead (46 percent to 43 percent), Verifeed found the GOP and its surrogates in North Carolina engaged almost 14 times the number of people on Twitter as Democrats in the final week of the campaign.  

Republican activists outperformed Democrats in sheer volume — and resonance — of tweets, with a veritable army of party activists faithfully retweeting and favoriting each other’s tweets regularly, if not hourly. The result calculated by Verifeed in the final seven days was direct engagement with 15,436,367 people by the top 20 GOP influencers — more than 14 times that of the top 20 Democratic influencers, who by contrast engaged just 1,746,178 people on Twitter.  

It also was a trend that played out directly between the candidates on Twitter. In the final weeks, Tillis amplified his reach and resonance on Twitter, a 21 percent increase during the period we tracked to directly influence 509 “unique amplifiers” (an individual who shares an influencer’s tweet more than once) to engage 1,469,972 people. That’s almost three times as many as Hagan, who had consistently led Twitter influence rankings throughout the race. Hagan engaged 235 unique amplifiers to engage only 465,114, a decrease of 58 percent from the previous period.  

Verifeed filtered, parsed and patterned social conversations in North Carolina from mid-August through Election Day to test how predictive social conversations can be when it comes to electoral outcomes, unearthing insights about what trends where emerging and who was influencing sentiment and why. Our results show the social network is both prescient and consistent as a bellwether of opinion.  

The race began with Democrats clearly winning the Twitter battle for hearts and minds — engaging many more voters in issues traditionally important to Democrats such as public education, equal pay and job creation. Early on, Republicans were virtually absent from these conversations and slow to see the swell of support for Hagan around unpopular statehouse GOP cuts to education spending. The trend was clear from Verifeed’s parsing of Twitter data in August, but went unacknowledged by pundits, pollsters or media until later in September when it was reported as the key factor behind Hagan then bucking a strong national trend favoring Republicans.  

The Twitter tide turned in mid October.  

Republicans stepped up their social media conversations — in volume, coordinated repetition and consistency to dramatically boost their amplified influence. Their effort energized the party faithful to vote, and in a close race this proved significant to the outcome.  

Tillis started to pull ahead on social media as Republicans bore down on the “fear" theme of tying Democrats to unease about Ebola and the Islamic State terror group, with consistent messaging and relentless repetition. The GOP, including Tillis, tweeted more about Ebola in the 23 days to Election Day than any other topic — with 997 tweets reaching 3.3 million people.  

Republicans also kept up their focus on Hagan’s deciding vote for the Affordable Care Act; in particular tying Obamacare, already unpopular in the state, to economic uncertainty and job losses. The GOP engaged more people on this issue than any other — reaching 3.93 million in the final weeks compared to the Democrats who engaged only 152,496. Republicans also encroached on Democratic turf in later weeks to overtake Democrats on the economy and education. While Democrats had engaged 942,706 in education discussions from Aug. 15 through Sept. 15, compared with the GOP’s 76,877, the tide turned in late October, with Republicans engaging 343,314 compared to the Democrats down at just 207,171 as public interest in teachers pay and public school cuts dimmed.  

Midterm elections are often won or lost on how effective the parties are at the get-out-the-vote ground game. Democratic influence and amplification on the topic of early voting, voter registration and GOP efforts to restrict both, outpaced the Republicans before early voting opened on Oct. 23. Twitter users Verifeed deemed Democratic influencers in this race engaged 3,159,499 with pleas to vote early, compared with the GOP’s 412,113. This Twitter trend played out at the polls when Democrats increased their share of the early vote, up 1.5 percent from 2010 according to the U.S. Election Project.  

But again, Republicans stepped up in the last week and Democratic engagement on GOTV dropped 81 percent from the first half of October. In the final week they engaged 567,089 on Twitter compared with 840,266 for the Republicans.  

Verified believes this data offers the following lessons for any future campaign:

Tweet early, often, and get your followers to share with their friends around the clock.

Influence is everything — the top 20 influencers actively engaged 33,538 active “unique amplifiers to reach 18,292,893 people in 23 days.

Know your influencers and stay on message, even at the risk of deafening repetition.

Listen, learn and leverage relationships: Twitter is a strategic platform both instructive and prescient. Republicans were listening and responding, and it worked.

Melinda Wittstock is the CEO of Verifeed.com, which analyzes social media conversations and data.     

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Topics: elections