The Democratic field has swelled to 23 candidates, with 20 candidates set to appear in the first primary debate over two nights. These candidates are all offering solutions to the nation’s most pressing problems, but there are major differences in the issues the campaigns are choosing to emphasize.
A Washington Post analysis of more than 9,200 social media posts from May 15 through June 15 found that the field overall has been prioritizing health care and social justice. However, some candidates are choosing to focus their campaigns on other topics, such as climate change, foreign policy and gun control.
In social media posts about policy, what share of words were about ...
Includes Twitter, Facebook and Instagram posts from May 15 through June 15.
See our methodology
Although social media is just one piece of the larger campaign, the issues that candidates highlight there signal where they could spend their political capital if elected. Campaign messaging on these platforms also helps identify the coalition of primary voters that the candidates are hoping to target.
The Post did the same analysis of the then-15-candidate field’s social media in March. Since then, health care has emerged as the race’s dominant issue. Talk of economic inequality faded.
But what each candidate discussed also differed. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee — whose acknowledged top priority is climate change — posted about the issue comparatively less than in March, to avoid being defined as a single-issue candidate. (His trademark hashtag changed from #OurClimateMoment to simply #OurMoment.) Gun control, which neither New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker nor former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper heavily prioritized in March, became their top issue on social media.
How candidates’ priorities on social media have changed since March
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Candidates who had not declared before mid-March are not included.
Seven months before the first ballots are cast, most of the candidates are still introducing themselves to voters.
“If a voter doesn’t know you, one way to get them to know you is by touting an issue or policy that’s near and dear to that person’s heart,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist.
Daniel Kreiss, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies how campaigns employ digital strategies, said “the sorts of issues that a candidate highlights is also going to be a window onto the types of voters that they’re going to need to reach ... in order to win.”
This analysis is based on posts from each campaign’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts, with the words in each post classified by policy area. Posts that did not discuss policy — such as invitations to and photos from events, most fundraising appeals or general statements about the goals of the campaign (“Let’s dream big, fight hard—and win!”) or about Trump — were not included. The share of social media posts that involved policy varied between candidates, as did how much they used social media platforms.
Who focused most on health care
The Democratic field as a whole prioritized health care, with all candidates dedicating at least 5 percent of their social media policy talk to the topic.
Alabama and Mississippi passed strict abortion laws in March, prompting forceful rebukes from every candidate. Some promised to only appoint judges and justices who would uphold the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade. Many criticized former vice president Joe Biden’s initial support of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funds from being used on abortion in most circumstances. Biden then reversed his position.
Who focused most on foreign policy
The race’s three veterans – Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton –posted frequently about foreign policy, especially in response to the Trump administration’s escalation with Iran. Gabbard warned against the costs of “regime-change wars.”
Who focused most on climate change
Inslee has based his campaign on climate change, and his social media posts show it’s his clear focus.
Biden released his plan for addressing climate change on June 4. More than a third of his policy talk on social media was about climate change, though he posted less frequently than most other candidates overall, on any topic.
Who focused most on economic inequality
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who is advocating a plan to give every American adult $1,000 per month, devoted a third of his words about policy on economic inequality.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders often posts about various issues through the lens of income inequality.
Who focused most on gun control
Four candidates spoke more on gun control than any other issue — a huge shift since March, when it did not reach any candidate’s top two.
California Rep. Eric Swalwell’s clear priority is ending gun violence. Nearly 4 out of 10 of his policy-related words were on the topic. Hickenlooper touted his record of passing gun safety laws and Booker spoke about his plan, which includes a gun-ownership eligibility program resembling driver’s licenses.
Who focused most on immigration
Since March, former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke have increasingly focused on immigration. Both offered immigration plans that would reverse many Trump administration policies.
Who focused most on voting rights
Who focused most on education
Education was the No. 2 issue for Biden and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. They both advocated for expanding early childhood education.
Who focused most on criminal justice
Castro released a “people first” plan to target racial disparities in policing.
Who focused most on other economic issues
Candidates who represent Midwest and Western states tended to be among the most active in discussing Trump’s tariffs. Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan implored Democrats to consider the effects trade deals have had on workers between the country’s coasts.
Who focused most on family issues
Gillibrand repeatedly said that paid family leave isn’t just a “women’s issue,” but no male candidates made it a significant portion of their social media. Warren shared a calculator to show the effects of her universal child care plan.
Who focused most on domestic issues
Candidates also addressed a range of other domestic policy issues, including assistance to Puerto Rico and proposals to help veterans and rural Americans.
Who focused most on infrastructure
Delaney was the only candidate who dedicated more than 5 percent of his policy talk to infrastructure. He rolled out a $2 trillion plan to update the country’s aging roads, bridges and water systems.
About this story
This analysis is based on a review of more than 9,200 Twitter, Facebook and Instagram posts by Democratic presidential candidates from May 15 through June 15.
The social media posts were manually categorized by Kevin Schaul, Kevin Uhrmacher and Reuben Fischer-Baum. Each person was randomly assigned posts to categorize, varying by candidate and social media platform. Categories for each post were suggested by a machine learning model built by Lenny Bronner.
Our analysis includes only posts that were about policy. Posts that did not discuss policy, such as event reminders, most fundraising appeals or non-policy-specific statements about the goal of the campaign or solely about President Trump, were not included. We also included any text from attached images and created transcripts of all videos included with the posts. To avoid giving videos too much weight, we included only the first two minutes. Similarly we included only the first 400 words of written posts. We did not include content on other websites, even if it was linked in the post. We also did not include Facebook Live videos, Instagram Stories posts or the content of retweets on Twitter.
For each post, we identified which portion of the text discussed policy issues. We included personal experiences and other stories if they were used to illustrate a point about an issue. Posts about a single issue were assigned to a single category, and those words were added to that candidate’s total word count on that issue. Posts about multiple issues were handled in two ways. 1) If the post gave equal weight to multiple issues, the word count was divided equally among those issues. 2) If the post mentioned multiple issues but gave more weight to one over the others, the text was split into separate pieces, and each was categorized appropriately.
Originally published June 21, 2019.