Voters like to complain that the news media cover the most superficial aspects of political campaigns: the horse race, the jockeying, the outrage of the day. And candidates are finding a way to bypass the news media’s focus on scandal, and convey their real agendas — through their Twitter accounts.
Twitter offers direct communication that bypasses the traditional media filter and creates an accessible public record of priorities and preferences. These 140-character messages offer a glimpse as to what elected officials think is worth paying attention to.
A deeper analysis of Twitter accounts in the U.S. Senate reveals that in addition to birthday messages, constituent communications, and partisan bickering, members do actually pay attention to policy. That policy attention is often a function of the current political environment and partisan preferences.
In a study of members’ accounts during the final six months of the 112th Congress, more than one-third of all messages included policy content. Policy tweets are neither red or blue phenomena: Democrats included a policy reference in 37.4 percent of all tweets; Republicans did so in 37.5 percent. And while things have changed in the Senate since 2012, this autumn’s tweets continue that trend.
For instance, tweets from the four U.S. senators currently vying for the Republican nomination for president suggest that each one is still trying to discuss policy. For example, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) included a policy reference in 10 out of 11 tweets from @GrahamBlog in the two weeks after the Aug. 6 Republican debate. Each one was either dedicated to defense or Iran policy.
Although @MarcoRubio’sTwitter account includes hawking campaign trinkets like embossed cellphone covers, about one-third of his tweets between Aug. 9 and 22 mentioned policy, primarily economic and tax policy.
But how these political actors discuss policy remains quite variable. Senators tweet on policy topics according to those issues they specialize in, party preferences, or what they deem important.
While senators of both parties tweet relatively equally about policy, their topics are quite different. Republicans were much more likely to focus on economic and international issues — such as the national budget or the attack in Benghazi, Libya. A recent example of this is Graham’s continued emphasis on Iranian nuclear policy. Democrats are more likely to focus on civil rights or family issues, such as same-sex marriage, gender equality in the workplace, or sexual assault and domestic violence.
Senators from both parties, however, tweet about priorities that are similar to those of the public. For instance, economics and budgetary issues were the most talked about topic on Twitter by U.S. senators — totaling 25 percent of all policy tweets between July and December of 2012 — followed by health care and foreign affairs. Policy areas like community housing or social welfare received little attention.
According to Gallup’s Most Important Problem poll, taken during this same time, the public saw economic issues as the most important problem facing the country. In the summer of 2015, the economy continued to dominate public attention to problems — to the tune of about 35 percent. When you compare the policies senators mention on Twitter with those of the public, the correlation between the two is a strong, positive relationship (about .7).
In other words, senators—or their aides– are able to glean what’s on their voters’ minds and tweet about the same topics.
Annelise Russell is a government Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin.