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How Bernie Sanders Beats Donald Trump at Social Media

April 19, 2016, 12:00 AM UTC
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It’s been eight years since Barack Obama’s “Hope” meme lit up Facebook and helped propel a young senator from Illinois into the White House. But the 2016 campaign has seen a whole new level of use.

I asked my analytics team at Hootsuite to dig into the social strategies of the five remaining campaigns and score them out of 100 points based on five key categories of social performance. Here’s how the 2016 presidential candidates stack up:

Donald Trump isn’t just changing the way political campaigns use social media — he’s using social media to change the way politicians campaign. The Trump candidacy sits on a three-legged stool: large rallies, traditional media, and social media. These three elements of his strategy are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Trump tweets something inflammatory, and the controversy he provokes dominates the news cycle — helping the real estate tycoon drive attendance at his rallies. It doesn’t stop there. The volatile scene at many of his events fuels the social media conversation and the crowds he attracts give the candidate the legitimacy he needs to book his next cable TV appearance.

Attention is the oxygen of a political campaign, and Trump is proving that it almost doesn’t matter what kind of attention it is. Yes, messages mentioning Trump, our overall winner, were more frequently negative than those about any other candidate. But while he falls flat on sentiment and engagement, Trump has more organic reach than anyone else in the race.

A big part of how he’s built this impressive reach is through his authentic approach on social media, Twitter, in particular. He may have hired his longtime friend and former caddy to lead social media for his campaign, but there can be no doubt @realdonaldtrump is really Donald Trump. While authenticity is difficult to quantify, it’s critical for social media success. For each candidate, we evaluated a week’s worth of messages and assessed how consistent they were with that candidate’s voice to ultimately define their authenticity.

Americans, by the millions, ‘feel the bern,’ as the hashtag, #feelthebern, suggests. With an average of more than 2,000 retweets per hour, the ubiquitous Sanders hashtag vastly outperforms Clinton’s #imwithher (425 retweets per hour) or even #Trump2016 (729 retweets per hour). There’s no doubt that Sanders is a social media powerhouse, but what’s fascinating is that this success seems to have little to do with having a discernible social media strategy. So much of the social outpouring around Sanders seems to be spontaneous, rather than strategized – a testament to the original power of social media as a collective voice.

The Sanders campaign relies on its younger supporters for its energy, momentum, and ultimately, its votes. Just look at the Wisconsin primary. Sanders won 82% of votes cast by people under 30 years old. Sanders is also relying on his youthful fans for his social media reach. Take for example the 435,000-member Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash Facebook group. The collection of hilarious, if incongruent, Sanders memes and mashups is ready-made to go viral. Interestingly, however, it appears to have little – or nothing – to do with Sanders’ actual campaign.

See also: Donald Trump Is Advocating for Voter Rights

Sanders’ pop culture appeal and his ability to inspire people to create their own social media content around him (and independent of him) is one of the most fascinating storylines of the election, and harkens back to Obama’s heady 2008 run. This is reflected in Sanders’ high impact score, measured by several factors, including retweet rate and Facebook likes, as well as qualitative analysis of how effectively the candidate is able to inspire spin-off social media efforts.

What the Clinton campaign’s approach to social media lacks in innovative tactics, it more than makes up for this with proven strategies, consistency, and huge reach. She’s strong across the biggest networks in politics, with 3.1 million Twitter followers and 3.1 million Facebook likes. Her campaign has also been more successful on Instagram than those of her competitors, and she was among the earliest to embrace Snapchat.

Clinton doesn’t have the same ability to drive the mainstream media narrative with Twitter that Donald Trump has, but she tends to get more positive sentiment. This gave her one of the highest sentiment scores among the candidates, which was determined by analyzing the ratio of organic social media mentions that contain positive language versus negative language.

Clinton lags Sanders slightly in Facebook likes, but she’s far stronger on Twitter dwarfing his 1.9 million followers and boasting 425,000 retweets on the day of the Wisconsin primary compared to Sanders’ 124,000 retweets. Clinton’s social team definitely knows what they’re doing.

As the GOP field has thinned, the Republican establishment against a Trump nomination have increasingly backed Ted Cruz. This dynamic makes it hard to parse pro-Cruz social media efforts from anti-Trump social media efforts. Even taken in aggregate, though, these two forces are only moderately effective — Cruz lags Trump and the two Democrats on social by a significant margin.

Cruz’ win in the Wisconsin primary gave him impressive momentum. But his sentiment is neutral and his reach is weak (45 million impressions across all major networks to Trump’s 72 million, even when he wins). To measure reach, we start with Facebook likes and Twitter followers, then we layer in variables like average daily mentions across all platforms and the popularity of branded hashtags. Cruz only has 3.2 million followers on Twitter and Facebook (just a fraction of Trump’s 14.5 million), and he’s mentioned far less frequently than his competitors. All of this adds up to a lackluster social media performance.

John Kasich is the sitting two-term governor of Ohio (a must-win swing state for Republicans) and a former Fox News personality with a long record of legislative achievements and conservative bonafides. In another year, he might have been the frontrunner, or at least the favorite among the GOP faithful.

But 2016 is not like any other year, as his poor social media performance shows. Kasich has just 292,000 followers on Twitter and 286,000 likes on Facebook. While his social media updates are generally greeted positively, he’s reaching an audience that’s a fraction of the size of his competitors. However, Kasich does generate solid engagement with followers, a measurement that assesses the strength of the connection between candidate and audience through replies, comments and retweets. Kasich’s social metrics would look good if it were 2012. For this groundbreaking cycle, however, he’s out of his league.

Ryan Holmes is CEO of Hootsuite.