To understand what public conversation the current presidential campaign has kicked off, we looked closely at the talk prompted by 20 presidential candidacy announcements between March 15 and July 20, 2015. (Note that John Kasich and Jim Gilmore announced after this.) Political strategists see announcements as ritualized moments, rare opportunities to deliver the candidate’s message and brand relatively directly for a day or longer.
What we found led us to divide the conversation into Before Trump and, starting June 16, the day he announced, After Trump. Some key findings:
1. Donald Trump’s announcement hogged the conversation.
He received 61 media mentions on June 14, 3,853 on June 15 and 635,824 on June 16. In the following month, he attracted more than 7.1 million mentions, a 32.5 percent of all the chatter about all the announced candidates of both parties, and a 46.6 percent share among Republicans. Between June 16 and July 19, every other candidate’s share fell except that of Bernie Sanders, which held steady at 10.9 percent. Hillary Clinton received 17.7 percent and Jeb Bush 7.5 percent.
2. The talk about Trump muffled Jeb Bush’s announcement in particular.
All the candidates who announced after Trump got a smaller lift in attention than expected. Trump announced the day after Bush, which dragged down Bush’s mentions from more than 80 percent share of voice on his announcement day to 15 percent share in the next three days.
3. Trump dominated conversation in the social media more than in the news media.
For example, in the news media, Bush and Trump had about the same share of coverage of voice between mid-May and mid-July, 25 percent and 26 percent, respectively. But in social media, Trump was the subject of received 61 percent of all public talk, compared with 12 percent for Bush.
4. Trump’s claim during the debate that “You wouldn’t be talking about illegal immigration if it wasn’t for me” has some factual justification.
Talk about undocumented workers in the presidential campaign conversation did not begin with Trump’s entrance, but he certainly boosted it. In the three months before his announcement, immigration was brought up in connection with the presidential candidates 205,089 times a day. After Trump’s remarks about the Mexican government sending criminal characters across the border, mentions of immigration alongside candidates more than doubled to 443,045 times a day.
5. Trump’s campaign did not do much to convert talk into political support.
Mentions are one thing; useful expressions of political support quite another. We looked at what we call the “echo conversion rate,” the percentage of candidate mentions sharing a link to a campaign Web site. Trump’s 0.2 percent echo conversion rate was one of the lowest among Republicans, well below the leading 2.3 percent for Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum between mid-May and mid-July. We also examined what the most re-tweeted candidate’s tweet actually said. Trump’s own announcement tweet was retweeted 10,980 times in the next month. The most re-tweeted comment by Bush, Lindsey Graham and Jindal didn’t get more than 1,500 retweets, and even those were about Trump’s remarks about John McCain. Considering what those three candidates said they wanted their campaigns to be about, their most retweeted comments were way off-message. Meanwhile, Clinton’s announcement was retweeted more than 95,000 times.
6. We awarded Ted Cruz, Clinton and Sanders higher summary scores than Trump.
Their campaigns, in our assessment, did a better job of transforming public attention and conversation into political capital between mid-March and mid-July.
7. Trump has continued to dominate public conversation since the Aug. 6 debate. Ben Carson, Kasich and Sanders have jumped as talk topics as well.
The Republicans’ Aug. 6 debate on Fox News gave the candidates a chance to boost their individual brands, messages and support. For sheer mentions, Carson has gained the most; he was mentioned 270,532 times on debate day, compared with 951,429 times for Trump.
Michael Cornfield is associate professor of political management at the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM). He co-directs the PEORIA Project with GSPM Associate Professor Lara M. Brown.