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Published August 5th 2015

Donald, Jeb or Scott: Who’s Winning the Social Media Primary?

In the storm of presidential politics, social and traditional media are the thunder and lightening. This has never been clearer than now, with the first Republican debate on the horizon. The first debate will have a heavy social media presence, with questions sourced from Facebook and data from Facebook illustrating public opinion.

So, on the eve of the debate, we wanted to consider which candidates have the strongest social media brand.

One thing is clear: during the last half of July, content about Donald Trump dominated the social scene, leaving coverage of the other GOP hopefuls in the dust. In Spanish content, candidates even had to share their spotlight with Trump, as their most shared headlines included references to the business tycoon turned politician.

The inaugural debate, hosted by FoxNews, will be open to the top 10 candidates, as determined by a selection of national polls conducted before the debate.

As that deadline closes in, two polls showed a very similar rank for the GOP contenders.

According to two polls conducted in late July by the Washington Post/ABC and by CNN/ORC, the three most popular candidates are:

  1. Donald Trump
  2. Jeb Bush
  3. Scott Walker

According to the Washington Post and ABC, the remaining 7 slots are held by:

  1. Marco Rubio
  2. Mike Huckabee
  3. Rand Paul
  4. Ben Carson
  5. Ted Cruz
  6. Chris Christie
  7. Rick Perry

So much for the polls. How are these candidates faring in social media?

Who’s winning the share count?

First, we looked at content about the candidates in our top 10 list. The content was created between July 13 and 30, after all of the major contenders had entered the race. The shares were totalled on July 31.

We found that the social share data for content about the candidates correlates closely with the political polling data–those with the most shared content also were ranked highest in the polls.

In terms of social shares, based on several metrics, Trump is the winner by a social media mile. The top five most shared articles about Trump received 914,006 shares, and the single most shared article about Trump, a pledge to represent Christianity, published at the ConservativeTribune.com, was shared 285.2k times. That absolutely slays any other candidate. Notably, the New York Times on Aug. 4 reported a similar Trump dominance on Twitter–7x more mentions than the next candidate.

The Trump trump doesn’t stop there. The eight most shared pieces of content about Trump from this time period all got more shares than any single piece of content for the other competitors. Nobody can beat him – in social media terms, at least.

The two candidates with the next strongest showing in social media overall, measured by social shares of content about them, were Scott Walker and Ben Carson. So Carson’s doing a lot better in social media than other polls.

Do topics matter?

A report of Walker’s promise to go to war with Iran, published by occupydemocrats.com, received 88.0k shares, the second most shared individual article. The top five most shared pieces about Walker received 286k shares.

While no individual article about Carson ranked in the top 3 for social shares, the top five articles about him performed slightly better than content about Walker, totalling 287k shares.

Jeb Bush finished third on this measure of social sharing data. An article about polling numbers for him and the other Republicans (compared to Bernie Sanders) was shared 74.5k times, and the top five most shared articles about Bush were shared 255k times, allowing him a slight lead over Ted Cruz, who had 245k shares for the top five articles about him.

Of the leading candidates, only Ben Carson’s share totals displayed a lot of movement during the three day period between July 31 and Aug. 3. A  piece describing Carson’s reaction to the alleged Planned Parenthood sale of human embryonic tissue published at chicksontheright.com gained almost 50,000 shares during the first weekend in August, and shot to the top of Carson’s most shared list.

Social shares of stories about the other candidates remained stagnant during the same time period.

While it’s intuitive that a candidacy associated with a national hot topic will have greater exposure in terms of social shares, this snippet of data seems to offer some numerical proof.

For example, Planned Parenthood, apart from the political campaign is a hot topic. The most shared article about Planned Parenthood published between July 31 and Aug. 3 was shared 104.4k times. Carson’s article, then was on topic for a nationwide debate.

Not so for the other candidates. During the same time period, the most shared story about politics in Iran received only 61.8k shares; Bernie Sanders 80.5k, and Christianity, just 7.3k.

Seemingly Carson’s on trend post about Planned Parenthood pushed his shares higher, while the other candidates’ ties to less viral issues left them with flat numbers.

It’s unclear from this analysis whether or not a candidate can drive shares to the topics they are associated with. Can Ben Carson alone keep the debate about Planned Parenthood alive? Could Scott Walker continue to drive discussion of US political relations with Iraq? Could Donald Trump try and own the discussion about Christians? Or is an external force–like the ongoing discussion about abortion and embryonic tissue essential to the mix?

My guess is that it’s the latter, but this overview of social shares isn’t enough to know for sure.

Positive, Negative, or Neutral: Does it matter?

No such thing as bad publicity? Does that old saw hold true in social media? What’s bad anyway – that’s in the eye of the editor and reader.

To determine whether or not content was intended to be positive, negative or neutral, I considered how the audience of the publication would receive the content. Thus, a conservative position as described to a conservative audience would be considered positive, while the same position, as described to a liberal audience would be negative.

My admittedly subjective conclusions seemed to indicate that if anything, a negative slant may drive more shares than a positive one, although not by huge margins. We noticed the same trend with social media coverage of the UK election earlier this year. The most shared posts in that contest were also negative.

In this year’s GOP race, the top five most shared stories about Trump contain three negative articles, and stridently so–think cats “with a Donald Trump hairdo.”  Three of the five most shared stories about Waker, including the piece with the highest number of shares are negative; two are neutral, and only one is positive. Two of the most shared stories about Bush are negative; the remaining three are neutral.

Positive for Trump

Negative for Trump

The Cat Trump?

The exception to this rule seems to be articles about Ben Carson: three of the most shared pieces about him–all explaining his stance on abortion, take a positive view of his stance, coming from conservative publications . The other two, one about Planned Parenthood, one about gun rights, take a neutral view. Carson’s own promotion of his content could be part of the equation. Only he and Ted Cruz have self-published content that ranks in the top five for overall shares about them. And of course their self published content takes a positive view of their positions.

Spanish language content

Much attention has been paid to the role of Latino voters in this year’s presidential election. For years the Democrat party has gotten the largest share of these votes. But, with Jeb Bush, whose wife was born in Mexico, and Marco Rubio, whose parents immigrated to the US from Cuba, in the race, speculation has been high that more Latino voters will choose a GOP candidate for president in 2016.

Interestingly, neither Bush nor Rubio got the  most shares for content published about them in Spanish during the last month. The top honor again went to Trump, who had a total of 9,847 Spanish articles shared about him. The top five of these stories alone totalled 263k shares.

It’s doubtful that many of these articles were positive. Trump has been blasted in the media for negative comments he made about immigrants, and a recent poll by NBC, the Wall Street Journal, and Telemundo indicates that 75% of Latino voters have a negative opinion about Trump. So beware of coverage in this area. The other candidates may be very happy to let him implode in Spanish language social media.

Accordingly, the most shared of all the Spanish language articles in our survey was a piece published by univision.com. In it the artist Pitbull urges voters to support Clinton, Bush, or Rubio instead of Trump.

Bush received the next most shares of Spanish language content: 729 articles. The five most shared of these totalled 35,982 shares. But, even in this list, Trump plays a role. The most shared story about Jeb Bush, published at Telemundo.com details the fallout for Trump after he tweeted something derogatory about Bush’s wife.

By comparison, Rubio is only the subject of 139 Spanish language articles, just slightly ahead of Scott Walker with 131.

Of the top 10 candidates, only three of them –Bush, Cruz, and Carson, offer a prominent button to translate their site to Spanish. But, Cruz and Carson are far behind in social shares for Spanish language content. Carson has generated two articles, and Cruz 53. Both have received few shares compared to Rubio, Bush and Trump.

Compared to the Republicans, Hillary Clinton has created far more buzz in Spanish content. There are a total of 1884 articles, with the top five generating 68,521 shares. But, just like Bush, Clinton shares her most shared Spanish language headlines with Trump.

Who’s marketing themselves best?

In addition to the shares they gain from content published about them, each candidate also has a website, from which they publish and promote themselves.

I took a look at the share data from the sites published between July 3 and August 3 to determine whose sites are performing best. I totalled the shares on August 3.

So far, TedCruz.org is the most popular site in terms of social shares. A total of 76 articles were shared 436k times, for an average of 5741 shares per article. A picture of an embryo with a call to defund Planned Parenthood, with 63k shares, is the most shared article on Cruz’s site from this time period.

The next most popular site in terms of social shares is BenCarson.com, with 12 articles totalling 410k shares. Carson’s average share per article analyzed was a whopping 34,226 shares per article. The most shared article on the site was a virtual anniversary card for Carson and his wife, Candy’s, 40th anniversary. The piece invited users to enter their name, email address and zip code as part of their congratulatory message.

MarcoRubio.com was a distant third in terms of social shares, with 46 articles totalling 313k shares, for an average of 4281 shares.

Trump, despite his popularity as a subject, has very few social shares of content from donaldjtrump.com–only 577 shares for four articles.

Of the top candidates, only half of them have a social sharing button prominently displayed. Christie, Huckabee and Walker, Paul and Perry all have a social share icons on the top half their sites, visible without scrolling.

There seems to be very little connection between the number of shares and the number of backlinks to the candidates’ sites. The most shared content came from TedCruz.com and BenCarson.com, but those sites had the fewest backlinks–one for Cruz and 90 for Carson.

Rand Paul, Rick Perry and Donald Trump had the highest number of links to their sites, 376, 262, and 204 respectively. But those links did not push their content ahead of the sites with fewer links.

Who’s paying for what?

The Federal Election Commission’s public quarterly expenditure reports give some insight into how much candidates are spending for their websites and social media campaigns.

Unfortunately, there are no standard reporting terms for reports on disbursements by purpose.  This makes it difficult to compare overall spending on social media between candidates. For example, Bush lumps Web service into a category that also includes media production, travel, and political strategy consulting, and some of the candidates, like Huckabee, separate out disbursements for web hosting, others don’t.

With that in mind, it’s tough to draw hard and fast correlations. But there are a few things worth noting about the money spent by the candidates with the most popular sites in terms of social shares.

Carson has one of the most clear descriptions of his online expenditures. During the period between March 30 and June 30, he spent 1.2 million on web service, and 56,388 on digital consulting. His site is second overall in total shares, and has the highest average number of shares for the articles posted on his site, 34,226 per article. He’s doing better on social media than in national polling.

Rubio, with web service listed as a $115 outlay, and the broad category of “media productions” at $20,000 seems to have spent least. But, content from his site has the third most shares of all the top candidates.

Cruz delineated two categories of expense directly related to his site: web service and digital consulting. He spent a total of $45,942 on those two items.

Expenditure data for Trump, who has said that he will pay for his campaign without donors, is not public record.


There is a lot of data about social shares to evaluate for such a large slate of candidates. This survey should be seen as preliminary, with more research needed as the election continues.

At this point, though there seems to be initial evidence that social shares of content about candidates correlates to polling numbers. The candidates with more shares of content about them performed better in two national polls.

Negative content with significant shares does not prevent candidates from performing well in polls. Negative content has a slight advantage in gaining social shares.

A significant expenditure on the part of one candidate correlated with a high volume of shares from his website, but the converse, low expenditures and low shares did not hold true.

Finally, Donald Trump dominated the social media sharing scene during July, on almost every measure except one, share of content produced at his site. For more insight into this, check out 8 reasons for Donald Trump’s social media success.

BuzzSumo will continue to provide social share data and insights as the campaign progresses. We welcome your thoughts on this series of posts.

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