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What Horse Race? Social Media Talk Policy

PPP Chart Number Three

A significant share of the social-media conversation about this election is devoted to Policy topics, and that’s a bit of a surprise.

When we launched our Three P’s analysis we had no idea what the results would be. For decades, it’s been conventional wisdom that pure Politics - the obsession with who’s up and who’s down known as the "horse race" - dominates the election conversation, because the mainstream media are obsessed with it.

There’s also a long-held belief that the electoral process has been transformed by the culture of celebrity, making Personality a major factor.

This loser in all of this was Policy - not enough talk about the real issues at stake in the election, such as health-care, education and foreign policy.

We wanted to see if the rise of social media are resetting the balance. When you give citizens their own megaphones, which of the P’s do they emphasize?DropShadow Logo

So far, the answer is all three, with the balance constantly shifting, depending on events. Our analysis reveals that Politics generally has had the largest share of the social conversation. And Policy, somewhat unexpectedly, has typically been in second place. But as the chart shows, for the last several weeks the three elements of the conversation have been in constant flux, due largely to the debates.

Shortly after the first debate, Policy spiked due to a much-discussed rise in employment levels - a shift we analyzed in an earlier post. During the vice-presidential debate, Personality became Topic A when much of the social commentary focused on Joe Biden’s aggressive debating style (see our post here).

Now we’ve added the second presidential debate to the chart, showing how that very policy-focused discussion - ranging from women’s issues to Libya to the federal deficit - drove a new spike in the Policy piece of the conversation. Those issues (particularly the Libya question) echoed for a day or so afterwards, keeping Policy on top. Then the trend shifted back to Politics.

Nonetheless, going into Debate Number Three, the debate season had prompted notable levels of social-media discussion about Policy topics, a development we’ll keep watching.

The Billion-Dollar Yawn

Ads ChartThis was supposed to be the year that TV ads conquered American politics. Non-stop fundraising by both campaigns, combined with the unleashing of Super PACs, has produced record ad spending. The total is close to $900 million and it’s expected to top $1 billion by Election Day.

Romney Ad

The question is what Obama and Romney are getting for their money. America’s TV screens are definitely full of ads, especially in swing states. But are they doing their job? Are they changing hearts and minds? Moving the polls? Convincing voters to support one candidate or the other on November 6th? 

News reports portray a somewhat different response, ranging from boredom to fatigue to anger. “I hate ’em, I hate ’em, I hate ’em,” said a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas, a TV market that has seen more than 70,000 political ad airings so far, according to The New York Times. Obama has even said he’s “sick of" his own ads

Beyond such anecdotal reports, it’s now possible to measure the impact of campaign ads, through social media. We’ve been tracking the social comments about both campaigns’ ads. Our working theory is that if an ad is engaging viewers, it will prompt a notable response on the social platforms.

The conventions and debates have sparked massive social commentary and, in the case of the debates, are clearly affecting the polls.

The ads are a different story. As the chart above shows, the social response to ads aired in the last month by the two candidates combined amounts to just under 450,000 comments (this figure covers tweets and public Facebook remarks specifically referencing an ad by one of the candidates).

If Romney and Obama were everyday consumer brands, this number would be quite respectable. But we’re not talking about soft drinks or shaving cream. The election is the number-one news story of the year, one that a large swath of the public cares about and is following closely. And the campaign ads represent many thousands of hours of TV seen by countless millions of viewers.

Obama Ad Here

The two debates, in contrast, sparked more than 23 million comments, for just two discrete telecasts lasting less than five hours total.

Why are voters responding so heavily to the debates, and so lightly, relatively speaking, to the ads? At this point, it’s impossible to know for sure. But given the widespread exasperation with the ads, it might have something to do with the debates being qualitatively different experiences - less packaged and slick, more in-depth, spontaneous and real. Because they happen live, debates have a built-in element of drama and surprise that makes them compelling.

Social media don’t represent the entire electorate. And campaign ads are surely having an impact with some voters. In a few weeks, after the votes are counted, it may turn out that some ads in certain states played a key role in the outcome.

Speaking on the Charlie Rose show last month, pollster Frank Luntz went so far as to predict that one particular pro-Obama commercial known as the "My Own Coffin" ad could decide the election. "If Barack Obama wins in November, and he wins because of Ohio, it’ll be because of that ad," Luntz said. “That’s how powerful it is.”

But that was before the debates. In terms of pure public engagement, the social evidence suggests that the most powerful force in this election so far is not the ads, but the candidates themselves debating live on TV, before a connected audience that’s learning how to join the conversation.


Women on the Verge of Choosing a President

Women in Debate Two

For months, the news media have reported that women in a handful of battleground states will decide the election. In the second Obama-Romney debate, women’s economic issues played a prominent role. Romney’s “binders full of women" remark was a Twitter sensation.

The candidates obviously have women voters in mind. But how are women responding? Do they watch and tweet about the debates differently from men? 

ObamaRomneyPointing

Last month, we reported that women commented about Romney’s "47%" video more heavily than they did about the Benghazi attack and controversy. The former issue was about close-to-home economic challenges, while the latter was about foreign affairs.

Economics before global conflicts -  perhaps that’s how many women voters’ priorities are aligned in this election. Now there’s more evidence that this is the case.

We analyzed the tweets and public Facebook comments about the second debate, a conversation in which women predominated (the breakdown was 54% female/46% male), and focused on two key moments.

As the graph indicates, during the discussion of pay equity for women, the social reaction had nearly the same gender breakdown as the debate overall: 53% female/47% male. One might have expected women’s voices to be even more dominant on an issue about them, but bear in mind that the “binders” comment also sparked a lot of sex-themed jokes from men.

In contrast, the candidates’ tense exchange about Libya was commented on more by men, 54% to 46%, confirming the pattern we saw last month.

So if, as Election Day approaches, you notice Romney and Obama emphasizing not just economic issues but the ones that that matter most to women, you’ll know why. Both campaigns are convinced this is the path to victory.

[photo: AP]

They’ve Got Personality

Three Ps - Post-VP Debate

It’s time for a new edition of The Three P’s, tracking how the election conversation is breaking down between three key subject areas: Politics, Policy and Personality.

In our last analysis, we looked at how the first presidential debate shifted the balance (we also explained how we defined each of the P’s).

What about last week’s vice-presidential showdown? We know that of the 4.9 million tweets and public Facebook posts about that event, many were focused on Joe Biden’s facial expressions and aggressive debating style, particularly his tendency to interrupt Paul Ryan.

PPP Logo

Behavioral traits and tendencies come under Personality, which has been lagging both Politics and Policy. Did Biden’s combativeness draw enough comments to give Personality a larger percentage of the overall election conversation - the metric we call “share of voice”?

It sure did. As the graph above shows, driven mainly by Biden’s performance, Personality comments soared, trumping both Politics and Policy. Apparently, when a candidate’s personal demeanor takes an unusual turn - Paul Ryan’s heavy water consumption was also a popular topic in social media and beyond -  even nuclear war doesn’t stand a chance.

The Personality discussion continued into the next day, when remarks such as Jimmy Fallon’s widely retweeted "Dude" quip were bouncing all over. The next day, Politics and Policy both rose again, and Personality dipped back to its usual spot, bringing up the rear. And there it remained as presidential debate number two approached. 

Jimmy Fallon tweet

Debating the Moderator - It’s All the Rage

Veep Debate All Three

Vice presidential debate moderator Martha Raddatz drew lavish praise from mainstream media outlets and prominent liberals on Twitter, and heavy criticism from tweeting conservatives who perceived her to be biased toward Biden.

Given the earlier discussion of whether Jim Lehrer was an ineffectual referee of the first presidential debate, a trend seems to be emerging. After the candidates debate each other, the public debates the merits of the moderator.

The Raddatz question clearly mattered to influential political tweeters, but we wondered if it extended to the rest of the social-media universe. Has the quality of the moderation become a big deal to the social masses? 

Apparently so. We ran what’s called a "topic analysis" on the tweets and public Facebook posts about the VP debate, to see how much of the overall conversation focused on Biden, Ryan and Raddatz respectively. We used an algorithm that pulled out not just literal mentions of each, but related remarks that didn’t necessarily reference them by name. The results are shown in the graph below, with key spikes highlighted.

All Three at Veep Debate

Biden drew the most commentary by far, much of it about his mannerisms and aggressiveness, which many called rude but others praised. Raddatz and Ryan drew comparable levels of discussion at many points, but overall Raddatz was talked about 10% more than Ryan. And tellingly, the day after the debate, Raddatz was still trending on Twitter along with Biden, while Ryan had vanished from the trending list. If this continues, who knows, moderators might eventually form their own party and run for president themselves.

Trending VP Debate Friday

Where on Earth: Visualizing the Debate Tweeters

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Note: The original version of this post featured an interactive globe that you could move to see the data from different perspectives. Now that the election is past, we have replaced it with this image of the globe.

When trying to gauge the influence of social-media on the election, geography is a challenge. The election will be decided by U.S. citizens, most (but not all) of whom live in the fifty states. Twitter is a U.S.-based service, but it has users all over the planet.

Thus, with every election event comes a puzzle: Where are all these people tweeting from, anyway?

There is no publicly available tool that will take a given set of tweets and automatically report the locations of the authors. But every Twitter user has the option, when they create their account or at any point afterwards, to fill in a “location” field in their user profile. So we decided to run an experiment: Could we use this information to calculate roughly how many people are tweeting about a given campaign moment from inside the U.S., and how many from each state?

The location line in the user profile is a free-form text field, meaning you can enter anything you want. For example, if you worked with us here at The Crowdwire, you could write: “1700 Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA.” Or, if you preferred to conceal your location, you could write something fictional like "Over the rainbow."

We took the comments tweeted during the first presidential debate and pulled out all user-provided location data. We then used a Google geo-coding tool to convert these addresses into geographic coordinates. Addresses Google deemed invalid or ambiguous were thrown out. Based on careful sampling of the data, we found that 37% of all tweets contained legitimate addresses.

But do self-reporting users really live in the place they claim? To answer this question, we looked at the subset of users who allow Twitter to track their location through GPS, and compared the locations detected in this way with the locations given in the user profiles.

Based on a sample from this group (1,000 users), the match rate was about 80%. Since the unmatched results included users who were away from their self-reported home locations while tweeting, the true location accuracy rate would be even higher. This result gave us confidence that the 37% with real, self-reported locations were largely telling the truth. We then visualized the U.S.-based comments about the debate that came from that group.

To see the visualization, click on the map above. Each ray represents a state, and the longer the ray, the higher the number of people tweeting from that state. To best see the lengths of the rays, use your mouse or track-pad to spin the globe* (note that both Hawaii and Alaska are shown). Statistics about swing states and states with the highest concentrations of tweets are also provided. Bear in mind that the numbers are all rough estimates, and the number given for each state represents approximately 37% of the actual total for that state.

*The visualization was created on Google’s experimental WebGL Globe platform and works best with Google’s Chrome browser. With Chrome you can zoom in and out by dragging two fingers on your trackpad or, in some cases, your mouse.

Why Debates Matter: Decoding High-Speed Politics

The first presidential debate gave Romney a boost in the polls and news outlets are now calling the race a “dead heat" and a "dog fight.”

Some pundits were surprised things could shift so dramatically this late in the game. But remember, this is the first presidential election since society became truly hyper-connected through broad use of smartphones and social media. Overnight changes are not just possible but inevitable, especially with mass-audience TV events.

The debate was watched by 67 million people, 42 percent more than watched the last Academy Awards telecast. With that many tuned in, any striking development was guaranteed to have impact.

But how exactly does this happen? How does a single televised discussion alter the entire conversation about the election, and the candidates’ standings in the polls?

Social media offer a massive trove of public reactions to every twist and turn in the campaign. Though the social universe is not a perfect mirror of the electorate, it’s a rich source of insights into what one large group of people is thinking and saying.

To find those insights, we’re introducing a new kind of election analysis we call The Three P’s. It’s very simple. Over the last several decades, traditional news media have increasingly covered the campaign as pure contest - the breathless tracking of who’s up and who’s down sometimes known as horse-race journalism. At the same time, coverage of the candidates as personalities has also grown, a spillover from the broader celebrity-focused culture. Critics traditionally argued that these trends resulted in less coverage of the policy issues that matter most in any election, and a poorly informed public.

But social platforms have radically altered the media landscape. Now, when campaign events are broadcast on TV, viewers respond by doing their own broadcasting to their own audiences. In an age when every citizen with access to technology can join the conversation, is our political process changing? Does the horse race still predominate over the issues? When one mass event reshapes the campaign, which factors are in play?

To answer these questions, we’ve used sophisticated language-based analytic tools to break down the social response to the election into three categories:

      Politics: the campaign itself, the horse race.

      • Policy: the issues, from the economy to foreign policy to education.

      • Personality: the candidates as people - their life stories, human qualities and quirks.

We determine what statistical proportion of the conversation - a metric called “share of voice” - is devoted to each of the P’s, and then track how the balance fluctuates over time.

We ran our initial Three P’s analysis on the first presidential debate and the results are shown below. The upper graph tracks the overall social conversation over the last few weeks. The lower one shows how the balance between Politics, Policy and Personality shifted in recent weeks.

Debut PPP Chart Redux

Over the last several months, Politics generally has had the greatest share of voice, driven by the usual poll numbers and campaign-trail theatrics, as well as unexpected events like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s comment that he would vote for Obama. The latter prompted a brief spike of chatter focused not on Venezuelan-US relations but horse-race speculation and humor.

Then came the very issue-focused debate, which increased Policy’s share of the conversation. As the chart shows, Policy and Politics converged. Although Personality’s share was consistently the lowest throughout this period, it also got a lift from the debate due to heavy tweeting and posting about the candidates’ contrasting energy levels.

Two days after the debate, the government announced the latest jobs data, showing an unexpected increase in U.S. employment. And Policy’s share spiked, briefly dominating the conversation.

Interestingly, the new jobs number was significant because of the political context created by the debate. At a moment when Romney was perceived to be on the rise, here was some apparent good news for Obama. Would the horse race change again? As this dynamic suggests, The Three P’s are closely intertwined.

As we move toward Election Day, the conversation will continue to shift among the three and we’ll update this analysis.

She Put the “Super” in Super PACs: An Interview with Eliza Newlin Carney

SuperPacCampaignAds

Super PACs – and the TV ads they fund – are everywhere this election.

It’s well known where these organizations came from: In January 2010, the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC threw out longstanding limits on direct corporate and union political spending. A few months later, a ruling in favor of SpeechNow.org allowed outside organizations making independent campaign expenditures to raise unlimited money as well. These two court cases paved the way for the rise of super PACs – and changed political fundraising.

But where did they get the name, super PAC? Credit for that goes to Washington journalist Eliza Newlin Carney, currently a staff writer for CQ Roll Call. We talked to her about the word’s genesis and the role of super PACs in the 2012 Election.

Before you came along, what did people call “super PACs?”

After the 2010 rulings, a couple of politically-active groups asked the Federal Election Commission for the green light to set up unrestricted PACs. It was easy to guess that these PACs would quickly take off.

At that point I started thinking about how I could write about them without making readers’ eyes glaze over. The technical, legal term for them is “independent expenditure-only Political Action Committee” – not something you want to write ten times in a story.

How did you chose the adjective “super” to describe these political action committees?

I liked “super” because it was short, sharp and punchy, and seemed to capture the notion that these groups could do a lot of things that conventional PACs could not. Traditional PACs are banned from raising more than $5,000 a pop, for example, but super PACs can collect unlimited contributions from any source, into the tens of millions. That gives them extra power politically, of course, and helps explain why they’ve transformed campaigns.

Do you have any thoughts on why the term became so popular?ElizaNewlinCarney

On the one hand, it’s not surprising that the phrase caught on. Election laws are complicated, even turgid, so it can be challenging to write about them without getting bogged down. That makes a term like “super PAC” irresistible to reporters looking to liven things up.

On the other, I confess to some amazement at how ubiquitous the term has become. I recently did an interview on French TV, on what I’ve taken to calling “le super PAC.”

It was interesting to watch the term trickle up from an inner circle of campaign-finance experts, lawyers and academics to mainstream publications. When I saw a story referencing “super PACs” in Bloomberg Business Week a few months after I had started writing about them, I knew it was starting to stick. When Stephen Colbert set up his own super PAC, that was another watershed. Now the term is in the latest edition of the AP Stylebook, and I’ve read that the dictionary might be next – though I’ll believe that when I see it.

What has been the most surprising appearance or use of the word that you’ve seen?

I was amused recently to stumble on an explanation of super PACs on the website “Dummies.com.” These are the folks who put out the distinctive yellow-and-black paperbacks with titles like “Auto Repair for Dummies,” and “Web Design for Dummies.”

How have super PACs changed our political system? How important is their role today?

Super PACs have injected multi-million-dollar contributions from wealthy CEOs, billionaires and corporate titans into the system, something we haven’t seen since before the post-Watergate reforms of the 1970s. In the GOP presidential primary, super PACs were widely credited with keeping candidates such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in the race much longer than they might have otherwise been able to hang on.

While super PACs have garnered a lot of attention in the presidential contest, their greatest impact may be in congressional and even state legislative races. That’s where a last minute, seven-figure ad buy can really tilt the outcome. As the New York Times recently reported, a new crop of lesser-known super PACs focused on specific candidates has started spending heavily in some individual House races. That same story made the eye-popping statement that through early October, outside groups had spent seven times more than they had at the same point in 2010. In some cases, these super PACs will outspend the candidates themselves. It’s forced candidates, parties and their outside allies to raise and spend money much earlier, dramatically front-loading the campaign season.

Super PACs are only half of the story, however. The Citizens United and SpeechNow.org rulings also freed up nonprofits, ushering in a new generation of what one tax expert has called “super (c)4s.” These are 501(c)4 nonprofits that say they’re promoting the social welfare, but that run multi-million dollar campaigns targeting candidates with hard-hitting ads that are indistinguishable from campaign ads. Because the Internal Revenue Service has neither the resources nor the will to police these groups, which face no disclosure rules, secret political spending has exploded. That, too, has not been seen since Watergate.

What are you covering right now? Does it involve super PACs?

In these final weeks before Election Day, I am writing a lot about political money – and yes, super PACs are part of my daily bread. But I’m increasingly writing about these “super (c)4s” that I mentioned. I have argued that secret money may emerge as the defining trend of this election. Regulating these nonprofit groups will be tricky, since drawing the line between “social welfare” and “political activity” can be harder than it looks without violating the First Amendment. I’d like to see Republicans and Democrats stop talking past one another and start seriously grappling with this difficult problem.

What makes this election different from previous ones you’ve covered?

This election is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Analysts who argue that the impact of Citizens United has been overblown are living in an ivory tower.

The two trends unleashed by Citizens United – unrestricted spending and secret money – make for a scandal waiting to happen. It’s not far-fetched to predict that the next big scandal may well involve foreign money. One of the unusual developments we’ve seen lately is the transfer of large sums between politically active nonprofits, possibly in an effort to obscure the source or scale of their spending. That suggests that some nonprofits themselves may be in the dark about where their own money originated.

Fortunately, we are seeing a real flowering of political journalism in this arena. This used to be a beat that I covered alongside a relatively small handful of other reporters. Now I’ve got plenty of company, and the political money stories coming out of major newspapers and investigative nonprofits are breaking new ground.

Social media play a role in this by tapping the power of the crowd to aggregate information about TV ad buys and secretive groups. This is a saving grace at a time when it’s harder than ever to follow the money.

Dance of the Virgins: Debate Drew Many First-Timers

Chart - Virgins

In the previous post, we reported that the massive social response to the Denver debate - 11.2 million comments - got even more interesting when you looked at who did the talking. In addition to the usual seasoned election junkies who watch Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow, there were a lot of young women who normally comment about shows such as Mean Girls and Awkward.

Debates have been airing on TV for more than half-a-century. What’s new is that people can now talk back to their TVs, effectively becoming participants. And this seems to be expanding the audience for Campaign 2012.

Some new evidence: About 400,000 of those who responded to the debate were tweeting or posting about a televised event for the very first time. Since the overall conversation included 4.7 million individuals or “unique authors” (some commenting more than once), this means that nearly one in ten were newbies to social commentary about TV.

As the chart above shows, the Super Bowl and several entertainment-awards shows have drawn responses from large numbers of newbies. But this is the first time a political event has sparked such a large influx.

As the TV experience becomes more interactive, popular interest in the political process may be on the rise.

Note: All data based on public tweets and Facebook posts. Since Twitter comments are mostly public and Facebook posts largely private, Twitter predominates.

Hello, Honey Boo Boo - Getting Serious about Politics

First Prez Debate Pic

Last night’s debate set a new record for social-media response to a televised election event, with 11.2 million tweets and public Facebook comments.That not only beat the previous record of 2.5 million comments for the Democratic National Convention, it was more than the total for both party conventions combined

Beyond the numbers and the broad consensus that Romney won, several things made this debate notable:

It was serious. The social explosion occurred even though the conversation was ultra-wonky. There was a shortage of memorable quips and fireworks. If social-media were strictly for superficial chatter, the discussion of Bowles-Simpson, Medicare costs and other policy arcana would have driven the social audience away. Yet they stayed with it, tweeting heavily straight through.

No pop-culture needed. Until now, it seemed only major entertainment and sporting events such as the Grammy Awards and the Super Bowl could generate massive amounts of social-media activity. Well, politics is catching up with pop culture. In fact, Bluefin Labs reports that for social engagement, this debate ranks just behind the last Super Bowl. Some news outlets seized on Romney’s Big Bird moment as the evening’s only bit of pop-culture fizz, but even that was about a policy question - the future funding of PBS - and it sparked a serious conversation

It wasn’t just junkies. For most of this year, the social conversation about the election has been dominated by political junkies. How do we know this? By looking at the other televised events and shows the election commenters have watched and discussed on the social platforms. Those who watch cable shows focusing heavily on politics have predominated.

But beginning with the DNC, there’s been evidence of growing interest in the election by people other than political addicts. This first presidential debate not only drew a large response from women - the breakdown was 45% male/55% female - it pulled in a lot of women who don’t typically talk about political shows, younger women in particular. In the chart below, check out the lists of shows watched by women who commented most heavily last night.

Mean Girls and Honey Boo Boo meet entitlement reform? Welcome to the new politics.
Tweets and Posts Graphic
Note: All data based on public tweets and Facebook comments. Since Twitter is mostly public and Facebook mostly private, tweets predominate.

[Photo: AP]