In social media posts about policy, what share of words were about ...
Includes Twitter, Facebook and Instagram posts in the month of March. See our methodology
Costly health coverage, a warming climate and growing economic inequality. The Democrats running for the 2020 presidential nomination largely agree that these are the major issues of the campaign. Where they differ, though, is on which issue to prioritize.
A Washington Post analysis of more than 5,600 social media posts from March found significant differences in the issues that each candidate emphasized. While most candidates discussed social justice and health care, only a few talked much about foreign policy or immigration. No candidate made gun control a first or second priority in their social media strategy during the month.
While 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 en route to the nomination.
Ten months before the first votes 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 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 period.
Who focused most on climate change
Every Democrat posted about addressing climate change in March, though some discussed it considerably more than others.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee called climate change “the greatest threat to our existence” when he announced his candidacy on March 1. He dedicated nearly all of his social media posts to climate change and has called for the issue to be “at the top of the national agenda.” No other candidate in the analysis was as focused on a single issue.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper dedicated nearly one-third of his policy-discussion time to climate issues, though he also posted less than all other candidates.
The candidates differed in how they approached climate change. Some backed the Green New Deal proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), which would pivot the U.S. economy toward renewable energy and energy efficiency. Others carefully backed “a Green New Deal” — rather than “the Green New Deal” — or outright said the plan is unrealistic.
Who focused most on economic inequality
Democrats have proposed several ideas to address growing economic inequality, with candidates including Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) making it a key part of their messaging.
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang is running on the idea of a universal basic income. His “Freedom Dividend” plan would give $1,000 per month to every American, to protect those affected by the rapid changes to the workforce brought about by technology and to boost the economy. More than half of Yang’s policy discussion on social media revolved around these ideas. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., has also warned that automation is upending traditional blue-collar jobs.
Other ideas include raising the minimum wage (a favorite of Sanders and Warren), the earned income tax credit (shared by Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) and former congressman John Delaney) and other poverty-fighting measures.
Who focused most on health care
The issue that battleground voters said they cared about most in the 2018 midterms was health care, so it’s no surprise that every 2020 candidate has spent at least some time on the issue.
An important early decision for the candidates was whether to back Sanders’ Medicare-for-all proposal, which would nationalize the health insurance industry and enroll every American on a government plan. Sanders and several other candidates used their social media platforms to back Medicare-for-all. Other discussion focused on prescription drug prices, the opioid crisis and the Trump administration’s decision to support a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Sanders, whose 2016 presidential run brought the Medicare-for-all debate into the mainstream, spent nearly a quarter of his policy discussion on health care — more than any other candidate. Health care also ranked as the top priority in Delaney’s feeds, though he mostly spent time explaining why he prefers other solutions to achieve universal coverage.
Who focused most on corporate power
Some Democratic candidates are proposing policies to limit market dominance by major corporations and "even the playing field." A series of March campaign events at the South by Southwest conference in Austin gave candidates an easy target: technology giants.
Warren spent a significant portion of March posting about her plan to break up Amazon, Google and Facebook, which she argues are unfairly eliminating competition by buying out competitors and building marketplaces that promote their own products over others. To audiences in Iowa, Warren argued against similar corporate power in the agriculture business.
Who focused most on foreign policy
Foreign policy got short shrift from most Democratic candidates in March, but when it was mentioned, Democrats promoted a diminished role for the United States amid engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen.
The only two veterans in the race, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) and Buttigieg, spent significant time discussing foreign policy, as did spiritual author Marianne Williamson. All three called for ending war engagements and redirecting that funding toward domestic programs.
Who focused most on voting rights
Discussions about voting rights centered on the March 7 anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Ala., and the passage of a Democratic bill in the House that included several measures to make it easier to vote. Candidates also staked out positions on some structural changes to U.S. democracy, such as eliminating the Electoral College, adding justices to “pack” the Supreme Court and statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.
“Our nation succeeds when more Americans can participate in democracy,” former Obama Cabinet official and San Antonio mayor Julián Castro tweeted, with a list of proposals. He dedicated more of his policy talk to voting rights than any other issue. The same was true for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), who late in the month introduced a Senate bill comparable to the one Democrats passed in the House.
Who focused most on criminal justice
President Trump signed the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice bill, in December, but Democrats have called for additional steps to address disparities in who is imprisoned and to decrease the U.S. prison population.
The candidate who devoted the largest share of policy discussion to criminal justice reform was Booker, a co-sponsor of the legislation that passed last year. On March 7, Booker introduced the Next Step Act, which proposed additional criminal justice and sentencing changes. He also touted a marijuana legalization bill that would allow people incarcerated on marijuana charges to petition for resentencing.
Who focused most on education
Harris prioritized education on social media more than any other candidate, releasing and promoting a plan for teacher pay increases.
Who focused most on immigration
Immigration received surprisingly little emphasis from Democratic candidates in March, even as debate over the southern border raged. Democrats called out the Trump administration for its handling of a surge of asylum seekers, and congressional votes to nullify the president’s national emergency declaration for border wall funding drew social media comments from the candidates.
The two candidates from Texas — Castro and former congressman Beto O’Rourke — were among the most active on immigration issues in March.
Who focused most on other economic issues
The impact of Trump’s proposed budget on social safety net programs and the Republican tax law were common themes in March.
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 gun control
Based on their March social media activity, gun control was not the first or second priority for any of the candidates. There were no major mass shootings in the United States during the month, although candidates did react to the March 15 attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Who focused most on family issues
Williamson dedicated the largest share of her policy talk to family issues. She has pitched a “Department of Childhood and Youth” to provide mental health and developmental services to children.
Gillibrand and Warren both touted family-related proposals in March. Gillibrand introduced a bill that includes a national paid family leave policy. Warren announced a child-care plan in February and promoted the policy in March, sharing stories of her experience as a working mother in her social media feeds.
Who focused most on infrastructure
Klobuchar was the only candidate who dedicated more than 5 percent of her policy talk to infrastructure. She rolled out a plan for revamping roads, bridges and water infrastructure and improving rural broadband access.
John Muyskens and Reuben Fischer-Baum contributed to this report.
About this story
This analysis is based on a review of more than 5,600 Twitter, Facebook and Instagram posts by Democratic presidential candidates in March 2019. We extracted more than 200,000 words relating to policy from those posts.
Major candidates who had either declared their candidacies or formed exploratory committees were included. For candidates who announced in March, we included their posts from the day they announced onward. To ensure a large enough sample of posts, only candidates who were running for at least half of March were included in the analysis (This excluded Wayne Messam, who announced in late March.)
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.
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 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. 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.