Millions of social conversations between North Carolina voters, candidates and big money special interest groups on Twitter provide compelling clues as to why Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan maintains a sliver of a lead over her Republican opponent, state Speaker Thom Tillis.
It may be surprising to learn that just 20 people were able to reach more than 23 million people in four weeks of Twitter conversations by directly engaging 5,936 North Carolinians who, in turn, amplified those tweets with viral precision to their friends, their friends' friends and far beyond.
How will that viral influence impact the outcome on Tuesday? Verifeed pointed our social search and pattern recognition algorithms at understanding what issues were resonating with voters, who influences and amplifies sentiment, and how opinions change over time.
It’s education, stupid!
Back in early August, Verifeed found growing public anger about education spending cuts passed by the GOP-controlled state legislature was resonating on Twitter with growing numbers of North Carolinians.
Democrats and well-funded surrogates were dominating the conversation — so much so that Tillis and Republicans were completely absent from the education debate on Twitter until late September, when Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity entered the fray.
Even then, our data suggests Hagan was influencing more than 10 times the voters on public schools and teachers' pay, issues more likely to boost turnout among traditional Democratic voters. (See related story .) Her tweets were shared hundreds of times by 72 unique amplifiers to engage 218,568 voters, while Tillis was retweeted and mentioned by just 14 to engage 19,106 on this topic. Republicans, meanwhile, had focused almost exclusively on criticizing Hagan for Obamacare.
The people Verifieed identified as the top 20 influencers on health care are all Republican, and these 20 activists and political action committees engaged nearly 2.29 million people on the issue in the four weeks through Oct. 15. That's a drop of 23 percent on the previous month, suggesting the GOP strategy had then reached its limits, and will not change voter opinion at this stage or be a deciding factor in the election.
In early October, Republicans turned their campaign focus to President Barack Obama’s uncertain and uneven response to Ebola and the Islamic State group, in particular attempting on Twitter to capitalize on growing public fears on these threats. On Twitter in North Carolina, Republicans engaged more people on Ebola than any other issue — with 1,550 people Verifieed calls unique amplifiers reaching 3.4 million Twitter users criticizing Hagan for her initial opposition to a ban on flights from West Africa. That’s more than 10 times the people Republicans engaged on education and three times those they engaged on the economy.
Tweets from Tillis were more about Ebola than any other issue (and Republicans were tagging just about every tweet with the #Ebola). Hagan continued to focus on education, the economy and get-out-the0vote efforts — and by Oct. 25, engagement around Ebola tweets had tailed off.
Verifeed data suggests Republicans in North Carolina continue to be far noisier than Democrats on Twitter. A relatively small, but very active, cadre of GOP party bosses and workers, tea party activists and super PACs such as Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity tweeted at a much higher volume than their Democratic counterparts and seemed to engage more people. The top 10 GOP influencers actively engaged 4,450 unique amplifiers to reach 13.9 million people, while the top 10 Democratic influencers engaged fewer than half the unique amplifiers, 2,030. Though it was a 204 percent jump on the previous month, the Democratic side actively engaged just 4.6 million people on Twitter.
At first blush, this appears to suggest the Republicans gaining ground on Democrats in a very close race. But GOP amplification as Verifeed measures by retweets, mentions and changing Twitter conversation sentiment, continued to be confined within the party's own ranks. In other words, tweets from the GOP and Republican candidate, tea party activists and Republican political action committees were being shared or retweeted by the very same people doing the original tweeting.
So while Republicans reached and engaged more people, these people tended to be committed to the cause and presumably already on Tillis' side. Democrats, though reaching smaller numbers on Twitter, have been engaging proportionally more people beyond their own ranks — a factor that may, with resonance on education — explain why Hagan has been ahead in some polls.
Midterm election results often depend on who is most successful getting out the vote when it matters, and Democratic influence and amplification on the topic of early voting, voter registration and accusations there are GOP efforts to restrict both, far outpaces the Republicans on all other issues barring Ebola. Democratic influencers on Twitter engaged more than 3.1 million people with pleas to vote early, compared to the GOP’s 412,113.
Verifeed continues to monitor each party’s resonance on Twitter as Election Day approaches to understand the extent to which these conversation patterns are predictive of the ultimate outcome.
Melinda Wittstock is the CEO of Verifeed.com, which analyzes social media conversations and data. Related stories: The Big Issue in the North Carolina Senate Race Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.