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Will Sanders Supporters Jump to Trump?

A new analysis of Twitter data finds some movement in that direction, at least among men.

By Tom Jacobs


Thousands of people gather to hear Bernie Sanders during a campaign rally in Manassas, Virginia. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Although the presidential primaries are essentially over, a big question remains: Will Bernie Sanders supporters overwhelmingly vote for fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton, or will a substantial number defect to Donald Trump?

A new study that looks at Sanders’ Twitter followers suggests Clinton may have a problem. The research examines which competing candidates the Vermont senator’s fans are following on the popular social network — and finds a recent tilt in Trump’s direction.

It also suggests this shift is being driven by male Sanders supporters.

The study, conducted by a research team led by University of Rochester political scientist Yu Wang and just posted online, has been prepared for presentation at the Conference on Information and Knowledge Management in October.

Wang and his colleagues collected data on the Twitter followers of all three candidates, focusing on three specific dates: March 24, April 17, and May 10. On that day in May, Trump had the largest Twitter following (just over eight million followers), with Clinton somewhat close behind at nearly 6.2 million. Sanders trailed both of them, with 2.1 million followers.

From the Clinton campaign’s point of view, the numbers are moving in the wrong direction.

The researchers focused on Sanders’ followers, noting how many also followed Clinton, Trump, both, or neither. They then noted how those numbers shifted over the seven-week period.

“Our study shows that, between March and May, an increasing proportion of Sanders followers are following Trump, but not Clinton,” they report. “The proportion of Sanders followers who follow Clinton but not Trump has actually decreased.”

The differences aren’t huge. But from the Clinton campaign’s point of view, the numbers are moving in the wrong direction.

In March, 20.5 percent of Sanders followers also followed Clinton; 6.4 percent also followed Trump. By May, the percentage of Sanders supporters who also followed Clinton had declined to 19.65 percent, while the percentage who also followed Trump increased to 6.57 percent.

What’s more, the percentage who followed both Trump and Clinton rose dramatically — from 10.7 percent in March to 14.6 percent in May — suggesting that, as the odds of a Sanders victory decreased, an increasing number of Sanders’ supporters were interested in getting information from both candidates.

The small but significant shift toward Trump seems to be driven by men. “Among the Sanders followers, those who simultaneously follow Trump but not Clinton are more likely to be male than an average Sanders follower,” the researchers write.

Specifically, as of May 10, “We find that of all Sanders followers, 49.92 percent are male,” they write. “But for those who follow both Sanders and Trump (and not Clinton), the percentage is as high as 64.11 percent.”

Of course, following a candidate on Twitter doesn’t necessarily mean one will vote for him. But Wang argues it provides a good indication of voting intention.

“People tend to follow, and thus vote for, similar-minded politicians,” Wang writes in an email. “I assume that if Sanders drops out, his followers who follow Trump but not Clinton will support Trump.”

“It is true that some Sanders followers follow Trump simply to learn what the ‘other side’ is thinking,” he writes. “But these ‘curious’ minds are more likely to be also following Clinton.”

So, a significant number of male Sanders supporters have drifted in Trump’s direction over the course of the campaign, perhaps due to the candidate’s frequent attacks on his Democratic rival. Wang and his colleagues refer to this as “jumping ship.” The issue now is whether they’ll find a comfortable berth on the S.S. Trump.