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The surprising genius of Donald Trump’s Twitter account

The Donald. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
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Among the many amazing things about Donald Trump's improbable presidential candidacy, this may be the most notable: The political novice is topping the polls in the Republican nominating contest even though he has spent a tiny fraction of the money that his opponents have.

That's because Trump doesn't need to spend money to get his message out. He has become an expert at letting media — TV, radio and social media — do it for him.

One of the most central tools to Trump's penny-pinching campaign is Twitter. The 69-year-old uses the tool like a digital native, more prolifically than any other presidential candidate and arguably with much more skill.

History will be the ultimate judge, but Trump appears to be on his way to becoming the first major U.S. politician to use it in a way that truly shapes — not just amplifies — his message. He uses his Twitter account to make news, lob attacks or wage threats against those who disagree with him and, seemingly most centrally for Trump, create a community of ever-growing people who appear to agree with him wholeheartedly.

It's a dynamic, real-time messaging tool that's under his complete control.

GOP held a Twitter chat at the Twitter in New York and was asked questions using the hashtag #AskTrump. (Video: @realDonaldTrump)

And Trump's words on Twitter carry weight. He has been retweeted more than 3.5 million times since entering the presidential race in June. His attacks and insults alone have been retweeted almost 1 million times.

The Washington Post's Jose DelReal and I know all this because we recently analyzed the 6,000-plus tweets and retweets Trump has sent since beginning his campaign — an effort that represents one facet of this Washington Post article by Paul Schwartzman and Jenna Johnson about Trump's methodical and disciplined campaign strategy despite the appearance of chaos.

We learned a few things about how Trump uses Twitter along the way. So politicians of the future, take note: Here's how one presidential candidate is transforming political Twitter to become one of his most effective (not to mention free) campaign tools.

He's relentless

Trump tweets, at minimum, 10 times a day, nearly every day. On Oct. 31 — a typical day in Trump's campaign — he tweeted 59 times.

Twitter is clearly a priority for Trump, even amid a hectic campaign schedule with back-to-back media interviews and speeches around the country. It's almost as though Twitter and the validation he finds there fuels him. As my Fix colleague Philip Bump found in August, Trump is a late-night/wee-hours tweeter, too.

What's he tweeting about all day and night? Well, about 11 percent of his tweets have been insults of or attacks on his opponents, the media, the Republican establishment and/or high-profile women.

If an opponent is up in the polls, he'll slam them over and over again.

If a conservative columnist or member of the Republican Party says something negative about him (Karl Rove is a favorite), Trump will take to Twitter and slam them over and over, sometimes several times in a few hours and sometimes several times over a few days or even weeks.

The rest of Trump's 6,000 tweets can fall into one of these categories: retweeting praise (see below), bragging about himself …

... self-promotion...

… or a threat or an apology request to someone who wronged him.

The impressively consistent message from every single one of those tweets is clear: Donald Trump is always right, always the best, and anyone who says otherwise or questions him is the worst.

Twitter is his real-time message tester

From a distance, it appears as if Trump's campaign has lurched from issue to issue — immigration, the refugee crisis, attacks on Christmas — seemingly based on whatever is popular at the moment.

But Trump is, for the most part, a disciplined and methodical candidate, Schwartzman and Johnson point out in their analysis of his messaging strategy.

His Twitter feed bares the same dichotomy: It's part of-the-moment, part incredibly deliberate. That's because Trump appears to be using Twitter (and his rallies) to test messages in real time.

When a message doesn't work — Schwartzman and Johnson noted that Trump's joke about Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders's hernia surgery fell flat at two consecutive rallies — Trump drops it and never looks back. In the volume of tweets he sends and speeches he gives, it gets buried in a day anyway.

But when it does appear to resonate with supporters, such as when he accuses President Obama or Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton of having ulterior motives by not calling the Islamic State "Islamic extremists" — Trump latches on and seemingly never lets go.

He repeated this message four times during and shortly after Obama's 13-minute Oval Office speech Sunday.

Then he took it a step further the next day.

He's obsessed with what people are saying about him

Yes, Trump is obsessed with media coverage of himself. He'll comment on many mainstream pundits who ponder his chances on TV or in an article or column written about him. Sometimes he'll even try to influence coverage he knows is coming.

But Trump also seems to spend more time in the "notifications" column of Twitter — where people are talking about and directly to him — than anywhere else.

He's digging through what must be an incredible volume of mentions (in addition to being arguably the most successful U.S. politician to use Twitter, he's often the most-talked-about politician on Twitter) and pulling out what he sees fit to retweet to his 5 million followers.

Most of the time, that's breathless praise, like this series of tweets he shared recently.

Every once in a while, retweeting praise gets Trump in trouble, like when his account featured a retweet of an insult directed at Iowa voters, who at the time had him down in the polls. (In a rare moment of humility — or Trump's version thereof — Trump deleted the offending tweet and blamed it on an intern.)

But overall, Trump's Twitter feed has a feeling of community, perhaps more so than any other presidential candidate, in part because he retweets his purported supporters so often.

All this has the effect of giving his followers the sense than anytime Trump is tweeting — whether it's to bash a GOP operative few people outside Washington have heard of or to promote his new book or himself — he's talking directly to them.

And building a community of people who unequivocally love him and see the world the way he does seems to be Trump's biggest motivator in using Twitter in a way and to an effect that no politician before him has.

Jose DelReal contributed to this report.