The Twitter Age of the Presidency

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New research looks at the content and frequency of presidential candidates’ Twitter activity in 2016.

By Seth Masket

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Donald Trump speaks before introducing Mike Pence. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“I think that maybe I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Twitter,” President Donald Trump said last week.

This is a fascinating statement, and one worth pondering and interrogating for a bit. Is Trump truly the Twitter president? The microblogging service has now existed under three presidencies, but no politician has utilized it quite like Trump.

This was the subject of a panel discussion at the recent American Elections Academic Symposium, held last Saturday at St. Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics. The panel featured new research by Scott Granberg-Rademacker, Kevin Parsneau, Todd Belt, Mark O’Gorman, Luke Perry, and Paul Joyce about the content and frequency of presidential candidates’ Twitter activity in 2016.

The Perry and Joyce research (summarized here) focused particularly on Trump. Between his clinching the nomination on May 24th, 2016, and his inauguration on January 20th, 2017, Trump tweeted an impressive 1,229 times — roughly five tweets per day. Approximately a quarter of those were posted between the hours of 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. Fifty-nine percent of Trump’s tweets during this time were exclamations of some sort and 21 percent contained words in all caps.

As for the content of his tweets, approximately half of them were attacks on other people, mostly Hillary Clinton. A quarter of them involved the sharing of some sort of information or news story. The remaining quarter were giving thanks or encouragement to some group of supporters.

This content analysis is useful and sticks pretty closely to public impressions of Trump’s tweeting style. But it is only a first cut at understanding just how Twitter helped him. Other candidates — particularly Bernie Sanders — used Twitter quite a bit, but were unable to win their party’s nomination, no less the presidency.

Twitter use is only one of hundreds of ways Trump was an unorthodox candidate. He campaigned in ways no campaign consultant would ever advise a candidate to behave, and he won anyway. As with other aspects of his campaigning behavior, it’s difficult to know whether Trump won because of his outlandish tweets or despite them.

Yes, Trump had capitalized on the latest communications tool and turned it into a political success story, but he was hardly the first to do that.

And as with other aspects of his campaign, Trump didn’t start from nothing. He didn’t need Twitter to develop name recognition among the public like most other candidates do — that was already nearly universal when he declared his candidacy in the summer of 2015. He already had over five million followers at that point. He didn’t really need to make voters familiar with his personality or issue stances, either, as he’d spent decades as a celebrity businessman and entertainer putting both on very public display.

Instead, he used Twitter to keep people talking about him. If his tweet was outlandish or offensive, no bother — it meant the news cycle was focused on his outlandishness and offensiveness for another day.

During the discussion about this research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist Charles Stewart wondered whether what Trump was doing was really all that new. Yes, Trump had capitalized on the latest communications tool and turned it into a political success story, but he was hardly the first to do that. John Kennedy mastered television at an early stage in its development, just as Franklin Roosevelt did with radio. Whether the latest innovation was cable TV or the telegraph or the pamphlet, there was always some entrepreneurial politician who was simply better at it than his or her contemporaries, and better able to use it to connect to voters.

Interestingly, Twitter is rare among those communications innovations in that it is run by just one company. And there are interesting ramifications of that as well. For one thing, despite having monopoly control over a key form of communications and being advertised regularly by the president of the United States, it has been remarkably unprofitable as a business. For another, unlike radio, TV, or other means of communications, it is highly unmediated. Twitter exerts almost no standards of discourse, even when such discourse undermines international diplomacy or even arguably constitutes a national security threat. The days when the Secret Service struggled with whether to allow Barack Obama to maintain a Blackberry seem ancient and quaint at this point.

Notably, Trump’s Twitter usage did not end when he entered the White House. He has continued to utilize it to make his views known and draw attention to himself — tasks with which presidents usually don’t have much difficulty. One thing notable about previous communications entrepreneurs, however, is that they were rarely alone for long. Trump will soon have competitors for attention, particularly as speculation about the 2020 presidential cycle heats up. Whether someone will prove more deft at the task, or whether the media and the public will simply have tuned the whole conversation out, remains to be seen.

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