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Social Advocacy and Politics: Trump’s Social Media to Ground Game Conversion Factor

By now you probably know that I think there is a conversion factor between social media touches and votes. Just as campaign consultants have their conversion numbers for the number of door knocks, yard signs, handshakes and baby kisses are needed to secure one vote, there is a number for social media touches to one vote. I still don’t know the number, but each primary this season gives us another observation for our data set.

Whatever the exact conversion equation is, it is sure to be a weighted one, taking into consideration

  • Whether the touch is in the state of the next primary or not?
  • What type of social media touch: reach, like, reply/comment, or retweet/share?
  • What candidate does the recipient support?

Over the course of the campaign and especially in recent weeks, Trump has been catching a lot of flak from traditional analysts criticizing his lack of a ground game in Iowa, in New Hampshire, and now in South Carolina. But that lack of a ground game netted him a strong second in Iowa, and commanding victory in New Hampshire and the potential for a GIANT MOST CLASSY performance in South Carolina. Could the traditional analysts be operating out of an obsolete playbook? Has social media supplanted, or at least provided a complement to a classic campaign ground operation?

While Trump’s ground game has been lacking, his social game has been unlike anything ever seen in politics. His use of social media is a HUGE step in the evolution of social politics. It started in 2000, when I was among the very first bloggers at a presidential convention, Pseudo.com was streaming a live 360-degree camera from the floor of the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, and The Daily Show was launching Jon Stewart’s campaign to be America’s Anchor. Then Dean’s 2004 campaign stumbled onto the social media site MeetUp, finding thousands of monthly meetings supporting the governor’s campaign and turned it into a powerful campaign organizing tool. In 2008, Obama had an intentional social media program from the start, but it was still inventing its way as the campaign unfolded, even rolling out a volunteer-built Facebook app for the brand new iPhone a few weeks before the general election. And Ron Paul’s 2008 bid generated an explosion of audience-driven social media activity that his campaign was able to ride like a bucking bronco.

But Trump’s social 2016 media presence is every bit as powerful as Barack Obama’s in 2008 and even 2012. Despite having a sixth of @BarackObama’s current number of Twitter followers, Trump’s personal participation in his own social media creates a connection to the voter that feels closer than the arms-length sense they get from politicians, generally. And his social media presence dwarfs his competitors. In the past week, for example, Trump has had over 48 million likes, comments, shares and mentions on Facebook. Ted Cruz has had fewer than 16 million and Marco Rubio has only had about 4 million. On Twitter, Trump’s audience is SPECTACULARLY LARGE compared to Cruz and Rubio, especially considering that Cruz and Rubio share about half of their respective audiences (see figure below).

We live in an age where Americans do not tend to trust government. Aside from the extreme expressions of this sentiment, as we saw recently in Oregon, the phenomenon of low political efficacy, the sense that government is not responsive to “me” or the people at large, plagues our country. But when politicians and government officials take to social media in their own voices to connect with the people efficacy will likely improve.

When you read a @realDonaldTrump tweet you know it is “The Donald” on the keyboard. That creates a personal, unfiltered connection between the candidate and the voters that is unlike anything we have ever experienced. And the conversion factor of social media touches to votes is real, even if we do not yet know the exact number. So pundits you hear operating on old assumptions are going to discount Trump and get blind-sided often. But just how many votes he can convert with his social media touches remains to be seen. What we know for sure is that Trump’s social media reach dwarfs his opponents. The rest will probably follow proportionately.


Alan Rosenblatt, Ph.D. is Senior Vice President of Digital Strategy at turner4D in Washington, DC. He publishes Social Advocacy and Politics every other Tuesday. Find him on Twitter ar @DrDigiPol.

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