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Trump is all the talk on Twitter in battleground states, but the focus on issues ranges widely

A new 15-state SurveyMonkey poll conducted with The Washington Post finds Hillary Clinton with a commanding lead over Donald Trump across battleground states three weeks before Election Day. We wondered what types of issues voters were discussing across these states and took a deep dive into discussion of the campaign on Twitter as the poll was being conducted Oct. 8-16.

This was a period of remarkable news in the presidential race, following the first presidential and vice presidential debates as well a wave of reactions to the release of a 2005 video in which Trump made lewd comments about women.

The rub? A majority of tweets focused on Trump in every state, but battlegrounds differed in what particular issues or themes they focused on over the past week and a half, upending a period of stability across states that was present beforehand.

The data come from the Laboratory for Social Machines, part of the MIT Media Lab, which uses machine-learning algorithms to categorize U.S. election-related tweets into issues. The lab is providing state-by-state analysis on hundreds of thousands of publicly available election-related tweets for the first time. (More on their methodology here.)

One important caveat: Twitter election discussion is not representative of any broader discussion in the population, as less than one-quarter of Americans with Internet access use the social network, only a subset of that tweets regularly, much less about the campaign, and an even smaller subset allows Twitter to regularly track their location. Nonetheless, Twitter is a hub for political conversation and provides an indicator of the content of discussions over time, and now, geography.

To the data!

The chart below breaks out the percentage of all tweets that mention Clinton and Trump among all election-related tweets since Oct. 8. Nearly twice as many election-related tweets focused on Trump as on Clinton, within a fairly narrow range of 52 percent in Arizona and 59 percent in Michigan, while Clinton was at 32 percent or less across all states.

Although the focus on Trump was no doubt driven in part by a new wave of controversies, it's far from new in this campaign. More than a year ago, Trump dominated election discussion on Twitter, according to the LSM project. Being tweeted is not a good indicator of vote support, as one might expect. Trump led by at least four percentage points in only two of the 15 SurveyMonkey polls, while Clinton led in nine states and four were within three percentage points.

The data do show a wide divergence in what issues Twitter users discussed across the battleground states.

Women and gender issues received the most discussion in four battleground states that are otherwise quite different — Arizona, Iowa, North Carolina and Pennsylvania — and even within these states the issue's prominence ranged from 33 percent to 56 percent of the conversation. There's little doubt that some of this discussion was fueled by the release of Trump's 2005 hot-mic video in which he made lewd comments about women, although it's unclear why it was so prominent among users in these states.

Foreign policy and national security was the second most prominent issue — and the No. 1 issue in Georgia, New Hampshire and New Mexico. This was far and away the top issue category when we dove into national Twitter election data this spring, with more than one-third of all election conversation (36 percent) focusing on these issues. Such tweets have focused on everything from the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, in 2011, which Clinton has been accused of mishandling, to comments about Russia, Benjamin Netanyahu and wars in general.

Political identifications such as “conservative” and “liberal,” grouped into the category “political theory,” were the third most commonly discussed category of tweets. Conversation about these terms was the most common issue in Michigan (19 percent) and Virginia (39 percent).

A hodgepodge of other issues dominated discussion across the five other battlegrounds: fiscal issues and taxation were most prominent in Ohio (42 percent), while immigration peaked in Colorado (36 percent), energy and the environment in Florida (34 percent), and guns in Texas (29 percent). Justice was the most discussed issue in Nevada (28 percent), a catchall term that includes both discussions of the Supreme Court as well as police and prisons.

The meaning of the wide range of issues across these states is far from clear, but it does mark a very different dynamic than MIT's team tracked over the entire previous month. Looking at data back to mid-September, foreign policy and national security were the top issues in every battleground state, ranging from 24 percent to 29 percent, while budget and taxes issues ranked second. Women and gender issues and political theory ranked about even, at 7 percent to 12 percent, across states — with discussion of women far below where it stands in the most recent data above.

The shift to a far more divergent range of issues across states is an interesting development in LSM's tracking of Twitter discussion and could be a signal that the political conversation has been disrupted by major news that could affect voters' attitudes.