Two weeks ahead of the pivotal Iowa caucuses, we take a look at which Republican candidates are leading the field on Facebook.
The Republican race for the presidency has changed considerably since our last dedicated rankings of the candidates on social. The field has narrowed since September and, several debates in, has become more clearly divided between frontrunners and undercards.
Our updated look at the candidates’ positions on Facebook shows that engagement numbers have also shifted dramatically over the past few months. With the pivotal Iowa caucuses only two weeks away, one candidate currently dominates the ranks.
We looked at the top five candidates (as determined by current opinion polls) and pulled data on their Facebook engagement figures for the period between December 1st and January 15th last. “Engagements” in this context means the combined total Facebook likes, shares, and comments received by each candidate.
Here’s how the five candidates stack up:
Trump is now the leading Republican candidate by Facebook engagements, and by a staggering margin. Previous leader Ben Carson slips into second with a gap of some 18.5 million engagements between him and Trump. Ted Cruz continues his ascent to place third, securing a comfortable lead over nearest rivals Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush.
This breakdown reflects Trump’s leading position in electoral opinion polls, where he’s currently notching up 37.2% of support. However, Cruz and Rubio place second and third in current polls, with 19.2% and 10.8% respectively. These may fluctuate as more are released, but it’s interesting to compare the candidates’ popular support with their engagement scores on social.
*Poll data as at January 15th 2016
Changes from Previous Rankings
Comparing these figures with our last ranking, the most striking change is Donald Trump’s ascendancy. His numbers have increased phenomenally, going from 6.1 million engagements in August/September to a total of 28.2 million this period. This not only places him ahead of previous frontrunner Ben Carson, but also effectively puts him in a league of his own on Facebook. Carson’s numbers have stagnated since our previous ranking. His engagement figures have increased to 9.7 million from a previous total of 7.3 million, but, notably, this is down from the 11.25 million he generated when we looked at the candidates’ use of Facebook video in November. This suggests that the early momentum built up by his campaign may be tapering off.
Ted Cruz’s placing in third is another notable change here. The Texas senator’s profile has been rising steadily over the past number of months, with many commentators singling him out as Trump’s main rival for the nomination. Cruz, who had previously ranked fourth, notched up almost 4 million engagements for this period. Interestingly, the data pulled for our Facebook video piece places Cruz in third since at least November, as numbers for the then well-placed Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee began to decline.
Here’s how the candidates’ current positions differ from their positions in our last ranking:
Trump’s 362% increase is by far the most significant, but Cruz’s growth also marks him out as one to watch. Jeb Bush’s numbers have grown, though not by a huge margin overall. Rubio has seen staggered growth across his numbers, with an increase in November but a decline since then. However, his continually strong showing in the polls combined with his distinctive persona on social single him out as one to watch.
Another point worth noting is that the top five remain the same in this ranking regardless of metric. Where before, candidates’ placing differed depending on whether the pool was ranked by comments, likes, or shares; Trump’s huge numbers this month mean he leads across the board. Each of the candidates are posting more frequently, as is to be expected two weeks out from the Iowa vote. The January 28th Republican debate may offer other candidates an opportunity to boost engagement but as it stands, it seems unlikely that anyone will dethrone Trump on Facebook between now and the caucus.
Our previous ranking of the Republican candidates showed marked differences in approach across the field. Some figures were quick to embrace native content and saw a commensurate return in engagement rates, but many preferred to use Facebook as a means of redirecting supporters to official campaign websites.
A breakdown of the candidate strategies for this period indicates that little has changed. While some photos and videos figure among the most-engaged posts, for the most part text updates and external links led the way. As this ranking period took in the Christmas season, well wishes and seasonal greetings were commonplace. Other major talking points included the issues of gun control and immigration, particularly in the wake of the Paris terror attacks in November and the San Bernardino shooting in early December.
Native posts were, generally, few and far between for the five candidates. The only candidate using native content in any significant way was Jeb Bush, yet his overall engagement figures (his biggest post for the period generated around 25,000 interactions) remain low compared to other names. Interestingly, given what we previously noted about their prowess with Facebook video, neither Cruz nor Rubio seemed eager to embrace native content during this period.
Where video was deployed by the candidates, it usually took the form of an excerpt from an interview or debate. Only one of Trump’s characteristic straight-to-camera videos appeared among his top posts for this period. The typically short piece wishing supporters a happy new year generated 359,444 total interactions.
Text posts, or general updates, were one of the most popular content formats among the candidates this period. We have previously seen that such updates tend to find favour among Republican audiences on Facebook. Carson scored the most successful post of any of the candidates in our previous ranking with a text update after a debate, while Trump’s heated missives to followers of his page frequently rank among the most-engaged posts.
This period saw a continuance of that pattern. Trump’s 8th December update reminding followers that his campaign was self-funded yielded nearly 569,000 engagements over the 45 days we looked at for this post. A 5th January comment by Carson on gun control has earned over 348,000 engagements in just ten days. Rubio’s most popular post for this period was a text-only reaction to one of Trump’s proposals, and earned 44,120 engagements in this period.
The continuing strength and popularity of these posts indicate that Republican supporters and audiences respond well to direct messages from candidates. While photos and videos are often more shareable, text updates come across as being more specifically targeted at supporters with clear (even blunt) language. Audiences may find greater value in a message which seems like it’s been prepared specifically for them.
The other clear trend evident in this period was an increasing reliance on external links. Cruz and Rubio in particular posted large amounts of links to articles, news reports, and campaign websites. Carson also saw two external links rank among his biggest posts for the month.
In Cruz’s case, many of the external links redirected to coverage and analysis of his campaign. In some cases, these were interwoven with comments on key issues such as immigration and healthcare. While, as a general rule, external links tend to detract from Facebook engagement by redirecting users elsewhere, the popularity of these posts on Cruz’s page suggests audiences can be open to interacting with them. The links chosen have a strategic element – many of them allude to Cruz’s growing profile and influence, implying that discussion on Facebook is but one part of a wider, more far-reaching conversation about the candidate. This can create a fertile environment for engagement, as supporters gather in the comments to evaluate and discuss the article.
The massive increase in Trump’s engagement figures is particularly notable in this period, and marks him in good stead going into the next, critical stage of the campaign. While the scale of the increase is unmatched, a number of factors may have contributed to his prolific showing. The end of 2015 saw a number of major security incidents both in the US and abroad, provoking a wide-scale debate on contentious issues like gun control, national security, terrorism and immigration. These issues tend to be divisive, and Trump has proven himself adept at capitalising on such conversations.
Further, Carson’s early momentum appears to be giving way to fatigue. Commenters have pointed to his low profile in recent debates and it’s interesting to see posts on his page take a more introspective turn, away from the headier issues of the campaign.
It’s also worth considering that this period took in the Christmas holidays. Engagement naturally falls off over the festive season, with fewer users online and many public figures themselves taking some time out from professional networks. In this regard, a decline in interaction for many candidates is easily understood, but it may be that Trump’s comparatively greater media profile kept him on users’ minds over the month.
Next time we’ll be taking a look at how the candidates for the presidential nomination use Instagram, followed by a comparison of social strategies on the two platforms.
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*Featured image via Wikimedia Commons