Political candidates seeking votes this November are having two very different conversations with their would-be constituents: In paid television commercials, the conversation is overwhelmingly negative. But on Facebook, candidates are promising a more positive vision of change, unity and a better future.
A new study conducted by Facebook’s data wizards, to be released Friday, suggests that those differences in tone come about because candidates use the two platforms in different ways. Television is used to reach a wide swath of voters; the social networking platform is a better platform to interact with a candidate’s own partisans.
More than 12 percent of the approximately 150,000 Facebook posts by candidates running for House seats, Senate seats and governor’s mansions are dedicated to inviting followers to campaign events. Nearly 11 percent of posts express gratitude to supporters, while about 10 percent ask supporters to help the campaign in some way.
“Negative TV ads aren’t necessarily what campaigns want to talk about, after all,” said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican operative who specializes in digital strategy.
The issues the two sides use to address their constituents shows just how useful Facebook can be when speaking to the base. More than three quarters of the posts about gay rights and women’s rights come from Democratic candidates. Democrats were also much more likely to talk about economic mobility or the influence of money in politics than Republican candidates.
On the other side, a significant majority of posts about abortion and gun rights come from Republican candidates, the Facebook data show. That suggests that campaigns use Facebook to motivate and mobilize their voters rather than to try to persuade undecideds.
The topics candidates cover also tend to vary by region. Candidates in Southern and Southwestern states are most likely to post about immigration; 10 percent of all Facebook posts by candidates running in Arizona were about immigration, while candidates running in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia didn’t mention immigration at all.
As Facebook becomes a bigger part of our daily lives, campaigns are evolving to take advantage of its reach, and some digital strategists think those campaigns are only just beginning to scratch the surface.
“The big opportunity for campaigns is to use Facebook to identity and target prospective voters and supporters, to use the sophisticated targeting to reach someone with the right message at the right time,” said Brian Reich, a Democratic public relations expert. “Campaigns are barely scratching the surface of what is possible in terms of targeting and really smart data-driven communications efforts.”
Republican and Democratic candidates post on Facebook at about the same rate; unsurprisingly, challengers are far more likely to post on Facebook than incumbents, who have other means of getting their message out. But what the two sides post varies dramatically: Republican candidates are more likely to post news about big-name endorsements, whether from local officials or national conservative icons. Democratic candidates are more likely to share content from other sources, like the local newspaper or television station.
Here’s another fascinating insight from Facebook’s data team: Men are far more likely to comment on a candidate’s post, while women make up the majority of those who interact by “liking” a specific post. Men between 45 and 54 are twice as likely as women of the same age to comment on a story, while older women — those over 55 years old — are the most likely to “like” a post. The 150,000 posts by candidates for office this year have generated 20 million interactions in just the last three months, Facebook said.
One issue that united Democrats and Republicans: The ALS “ice bucket challenge.” Candidates on both sides posted videos of themselves getting doused by friends, family and supporters.