Tweets Can Foretell Votes, Study Finds

National Journal
Alex Roarty
Aug. 12, 2013, 2:29 p.m.

Who needs polls? A study pub­lished Monday re­ports that cam­paigns could use Twit­ter to suc­cess­fully pre­dict the win­ner of most races, find­ings that might bol­ster the so­cial me­dia ser­vice’s already ro­bust polit­ic­al pres­ence.

The key meas­ure, re­search­ers from In­di­ana Uni­versity found, was a can­did­ate’s “tweet share,” the per­cent­age of total tweets about a race that men­tion them. The more of­ten a can­did­ate is men­tioned on Twit­ter re­l­at­ive to their op­pon­ent, the study re­por­ted, the great­er their chance for vic­tory.

The find­ings were com­pre­hens­ive: An ana­lys­is of tweets from the 2010 midterm elec­tions found the data cor­rectly pre­dicted the win­ner in 404 of the 406 House races.

“We plot­ted it and thought, ‘Holy moly, it was a very strong cor­rel­a­tion,’ ” said Fa­bio Ro­jas, a so­ci­ology pro­fess­or at In­di­ana and one of the study’s coau­thors. He ad­ded that pre­lim­in­ary ana­lys­is of last year’s con­gres­sion­al elec­tions show sim­il­ar res­ults.

The find­ings rest on two im­port­ant points: The raw num­ber of tweets about a can­did­ate doesn’t mat­ter, and neither does wheth­er the tweets are pos­it­ive or neg­at­ive. Ro­jas and his col­leagues, who col­lec­ted hun­dreds of thou­sands of tweets from the 2010 race, ini­tially meas­ured the total num­ber of times the can­did­ate was men­tioned, but the find­ings failed to cor­rel­ate with which can­did­ate won. Well-known can­did­ates, like Rep. Michele Bach­mann, R-Minn., or can­did­ates from big­ger and wealth­i­er dis­tricts would in­her­ently re­ceive more at­ten­tion.

It was then, Ro­jas said, they real­ized that what mattered was the Twit­ter “horse race,” or the num­ber of tweets a can­did­ate earns vis-à-vis his or her op­pon­ent. Just as the can­did­ates would com­pete for a lim­ited per­cent­age of the vote, they would also com­pete for a lim­ited per­cent­age of the total Twit­ter traffic.

Per­haps most in­ter­est­ing, wheth­er the tweet praised or cri­ti­cized the re­cip­i­ent was ir­rel­ev­ant. When it comes to Twit­ter and politi­cians, ap­par­ently all pub­li­city really is good pub­li­city.

“Are you go­ing to talk about the guy who loses or the guy who wins?” Ro­jas asked. “You’re go­ing to talk about the win­ner, even if you hate the win­ner.”

He ad­ded that al­though cam­paigns could seem­ingly skew the res­ults by pay­ing so­cial me­dia dir­ect­ors to tweet or by ask­ing vo­lun­teers to pitch in, such a prob­lem has not yet aris­en. Such ef­forts are usu­ally can­celed out by sim­il­ar ac­tion taken by their rival, he said.

In Ro­jas’s view, the find­ings should re­vo­lu­tion­ize how cam­paigns con­duct them­selves. Rather than spend­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands, or even mil­lions, of dol­lars on sur­veys, cam­paigns could simply gauge their status on Twit­ter. That should help cam­paigns with few­er re­sources com­pete with well-heeled in­cum­bents, he said.

“The point is, it’s cheap,” he said. “Once you start up soft­ware for col­lect­ing tweets, it’s very cheap. It took one of my Ph.D. stu­dents a couple of weeks to set it up.”

Of course, pro­fes­sion­al polling isn’t likely to dis­ap­pear from polit­ics any time soon. For one, it’s used for more than just the horse race — cam­paigns test a vari­ety of things with polls, in­clud­ing their mes­sage. Twit­ter doesn’t of­fer help that way. And few politi­cians would be will­ing to switch off from a battle-tested poll­ster in fa­vor of a tech­no­logy un­proven in the heat of a crit­ic­al race.

But Twit­ter is also of­ten de­rided as a hangout for polit­ic­al and me­dia elites, pro­du­cing a de­bate that bears little re­semb­lance to the thoughts and opin­ions of most voters. This study sug­gests that the so­cial me­dia out­let does provide an ac­cur­ate re­flec­tion of the elect­or­ate.

Guy Har­ris­on, a former ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee, said he’d have to see a Twit­ter ana­lys­is pro­duce ac­cur­ate res­ults in a com­pet­it­ive race be­fore put­ting his faith in it. But the ser­vice’s im­port­ance to the polit­ic­al de­bate, he said, is bey­ond ques­tion at this point.

“So­cial me­dia and di­git­al me­dia across the board is here to stay, and it’s go­ing to be here a long time,” he said.

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