The Twitter Primary

Exploring the Twitter following of several 2020 Democrat presidential candidates.

Jeffrey Shen

Mar 22, 2019


I recently read a Huffington Post article exploring the Twitter followers of several front-running Democrat candidates for the 2020 Presidential Election. This got me thinking: Twitter is clearly hugely influential in online discourse, and certainly is reflective of a great deal of public sentiment surrounding the upcoming election. Are there other ways we can examine how Twitter users are engaging with each Democrat Presidential candidate?

For this post, I’ll be looking at several of the Democrat candidates who have officially announced their campaign as of March 21, 2019 (meaning no Joe Biden) and will be using the Twitter account most closely associated with each candidate’s campaign. All information was scraped using the Twitter API.

I’ll first look at the number of followers each candidate has. While followers aren’t necessarily an indication of support (many opponents of Donald Trump, for example, follow him on Twitter), they are a useful—albeit incomplete—metric of how much attention a candidate has drawn.

Bernie Sanders clearly leads the pack in followers, with the other candidates trailing by at least four million followers. This overwhelming advantage makes sense: Sanders has a notable social media presence, and has been in the national spotlight for over four years, enabling him to garner more followers than some of the newcomers like Andrew Yang or Beto O’Rourke.

What about enthusiasm towards each candidate’s announcement to run for president, though? I looked at the amount of likes and retweets each candidate received when they announced their presidential candidacy on Twitter to roughly approximate enthusiasm towards each candidate’s bid.

Sanders again leads in overall retweets and likes, but surprisingly, Beto O’Rourke took the second place slot, reflecting a degree of excitement—and media attention—towards his candidacy.

Finally, I looked at average engagement (likes and retweets) to each post by a presidential candidate. I wanted to see how successful each candidate is at engaging with their audience on a regular basis on Twitter, so I’ve calculated the average amount of retweets and likes on each post per candidate. I’ve only counted posts which were posted after the presidential candidate announced their campaign on Twitter, and do not count retweets by the candidate.

Interestingly, Kamala Harris leads in this category over Sanders, an unexpected result given Sanders’s otherwise domination of social media. Why is this? Does Harris have just a few number of posts which perform extremely well, or does she actually perform the best overall in terms of engagement? To find out, I plotted box-and-whisker plots for the likes on each candidate’s posts.

As can be seen, Harris has a much larger spread of likes on her posts, though her median likes per post is not that different from Sanders. In other words, Harris’s posts get roughly the same amount of engagement on her posts as Sanders, though she does have more posts which get an above-average amount of likes.


Further Reading

  1. Source Code
  2. "Presidential candidates, 2020"
  3. "Welcome To The 2020 Twitter Primary"
  4. "Who’s Running for President in 2020?"

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