Debate clips, campaign ads and policy explainers: we take a look at how the US presidential candidates are making the most of Facebook video.

Our look at the performance of the US presidential candidates on social threw up some unexpected surprises. For one thing, the most widely-known candidate in either party wasn’t necessarily the biggest on Facebook. In addition, while native content was generating big numbers for many candidates, the engagement wasn’t always in the form you’d expect.
Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders earned huge volumes of shares from his supporters in the period we looked at for our blog. However, going against almost everything we know about successful Facebook videos, his biggest post was an 8-minute long video deconstructing a complex political issue. After seeing the numbers around this and other videos posted by the candidates, we decided to take a look at the way the US presidential candidates are using video on Facebook.
Looking at the Facebook videos posted by both Republican and Democratic candidates over the past month*, here’s what we noticed.
* For this piece, we looked at Facebook video data for the top-ranking candidates in each party (four Republican candidates and two Democratic candidates) over a 30-day period from October 17th to November 17th. As ever, all the data comes from Spike.

1) Donald Trump gets the biggest numbers – off by far the simplest videos

Trump’s signature bombast is particularly evident in his Facebook videos. By contrast with his fellow candidates, his videos are almost exclusively short, direct-to-camera pieces which appear to be recorded on a phone or tablet. In most of these videos, he speaks to viewers from his desk with a brief, characteristically heated missive on a campaign issue.
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The above video, uploaded three days after the terror attacks in Paris, earned phenomenal numbers within just a few days. It is representative of many of Trump’s videos – it’s very short (11 seconds), succinct and unedited, and allows him to opine on a particular election issue (in this case, immigration). No doubt influenced by the heightened media climate following the attacks, this video had just over 299,000 engagements in the time we looked at for this article. Even taking into account the context of the clip, those numbers are staggering. To compare, the next biggest video of any candidate – a clip uploaded by Ben Carson – had a total of 114,862 engagements in the same time period.
While not all of Trump’s videos generate such massive numbers, he is by far the most successful candidate overall when it comes to Facebook video. Videos posted to his page in this time period generated a total of 1,129,204 engagements, with each video earning an average of about 66,424 engagements. This puts him some distance ahead of the next most successful candidate, fellow Republican Ted Cruz. Cruz notched up 1,017,955 engagements in the same period but posted a total of 70 videos, whereas Trump generated his numbers from only 17 videos.
Total FB video engagements chart
Average engagement per video post
What’s more, Trump’s videos average about 13 seconds in length.** While Trump’s high profile is likely to have earned him greater attention than his fellow candidates, there is a strategic element to his videos which may boost their success. They’re consistent and distinctive in style and tone, reflect his media persona and touch on extremely topical themes. In addition, their short running times and simple format make them easy to view and share. In this regard, Trump’s use of Facebook video is a prime example of how to tailor an approach to a campaign.
** Trump’s videos for this period are almost exclusively under 15 seconds long, bar one video of a 38-minute-long press conference. The latter disproportionately inflates Trump’s average video length to 4 minutes and 26 seconds. Excluding this video, Trump’s videos average only 13 seconds in length.

2) Bernie Sanders earns the most shares of all the candidates – but Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are gaining

When we looked at the performance of the Democratic candidates on Facebook, we noted that Bernie Sanders’ posts were getting massive shares. His videos are no exception, but his prowess isn’t as unique when considered in this context. Two Republican candidates, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are both benefiting from keen sharing among visitors to their pages.
Once again, Sanders’ biggest video post – and his third biggest post overall for this period – defies the mould. It’s just under 9 minutes long and edits together clips of his speeches over 30 years. As a piece of political campaigning, it’s extremely shrewd, highlighting his consistency and long-term efforts on major issues. As a piece of Facebook content, it’s doubly striking.
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This video earned a total of 113,006 engagements, nearly 35,000 more than his next biggest video for this time period. While its numbers pale in comparison to the Trump juggernaut noted above, it has racked up some 55% of its numbers from shares. If we consider a share a more meaningful form of interaction, in that those who viewed the video (or part of it) were compelled enough to share it on their own feeds, this may be taken as a more indicative sign of success. 29% of Sanders’ total Facebook engagements for videos came from shares, making him the most widely-shared of any of the candidates.
However, looking at the overall pool, Sanders’ dominion over Facebook shares isn’t as pronounced as it first seems. Republican candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio both earned significant amounts of shares in the 30-day period we looked at for this article. Cruz has been particularly prolific, posting 70 videos in this period alone and notching up 226,770 shares in total. His videos also tend to be lengthier than most, with an average run time of 2 minutes and 22 seconds.
Average video duration
Rubio, for his part, has matched increasing buzz in the media with heavy Facebook activity. From a total of 54 videos this period, he earned 221,443 shares. This metric accounts for a stunning 73% of the total interactions on his video posts. What’s more, his clips tend to be shorter in length, and while he too has embraced the direct-to-camera approach, he tends towards a more serious and thoughtful tone.

3) Tactics vary enormously (as does success)

One thing that’s immediately apparent from our data is the variation in the way candidates use Facebook video. It generates huge numbers for some candidates, while others have seen photos and even text posts perform much more promisingly for them.
Trump’s acerbic style extends to almost all his Facebook videos. When not speaking from his desk, he posts tongue-in-cheek clips of his campaign rivals as well as interviews with incumbent politicians. All of these fit with the overall ethos of his page. Other Republican candidates differ in their approaches but all have one thing in common – a majority of their video clips come from the candidate debates. Compared to the Democrat Party, the Republican candidates have a hectic debate schedule and, what’s more, a particularly crowded ticket, so it’s possible that the profusion of debate clips is an effort to single out contributions which might have gotten lost in the fray. Videos summarising their take at a debate are especially common.
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The Democrat candidates we looked at also take an individual approach. Sanders maximises his solid Facebook support by posting multiple videos speaking to his message and policies. Unlike many of the other candidates (across both parties), he seems intent on using his videos to educate and inform users about his manifesto and background. In addition to the video compilation of his speeches, Sanders has posted full-length speeches, interviews, and television ads from his campaign. This gives his presence on Facebook a noticeably more personable character, while still remaining thoroughly focused on the task at hand.
Hillary Clinton’s videos are less in-depth. She tends to post shorter videos, highlighting individual questions she’s received or messages in debates. Several videos also compile clips from interviews with public figures in Washington who have endorsed her for the presidency.
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The diversity of approach across the board is matched by the disparate response from users. Looking at the biggest posts for the period in question, some candidates had numerous videos in their top 25 while others only had one or two. Seven of Sanders’ biggest posts were videos, four of which ranked in the top 10 for the month. By contrast, only three videos appear in Clinton’s top 25, with the vast majority of her engagement stemming from photos.
The Republicans have elicited similarly mixed responses. Unsurprisingly given his activity in this area, Cruz has 9 videos in his top 25 posts for the month. Rubio has 5, while Carson and Trump had 1 and 4 respectively. Of all the Republican names, Ben Carson seems to have taken the most hands-off approach when it comes to videos. Some of his more popular ones are snippets filmed on a phone as he travels between debates, providing brief glimpses into life on the campaign trail. Visitors to his page however are far more likely to engage with his text updates or photos, with these post formats accounting for the bulk of his total interactions this period. Carson remains the leading candidate on social overall and by a compelling margin – his total engagements for this period reached 11,251,317; giving him a lead of almost 5 million interactions over Trump.
We’ll be keeping an eye on how the candidates perform on social as election season continues, and keep you updated on the blog.

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Featured image via Wikimedia Commons