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According to almost every possible poll, Donald Trump is losing to Hillary Clinton – and not just losing but losing badly in almost every state. Some media pundits are already predicting a landslide victory for Hillary in November. And, yet, according to some social media metrics – such as Twitter follower growth and tweet mentions, Trump is actually doing better than ever.
So what’s going on here – is Trump getting crushed, or is he the one using social media to crush Clinton?
One potential explanation for what we’re seeing in this election is a real bifurcation between mainstream media and social media. Mainstream media predicts a resounding Clinton victory, whereas the signals on social media are not as clear.
The mainstream media is the conventional wisdom – you need to advertise on TV, you need to stay on message, and you need to drift toward the center to pick up swing voters.
Social media, in contrast, is the antidote to the conventional wisdom – it’s far cheaper and more effective to send out a controversial tweet than to pay for a 30-second TV spot, it’s better to run unfiltered and off-script to appear more authentic to young voters, and it’s better to double-down on highly-polarizing language and rhetoric in order to build more online momentum.
That suggests that many conventional polling strategies may not be giving the whole picture. In today’s politically correct era, it’s hard to come out publicly and say that you’re a Trump supporter. Just watch CNN for a day or two, and you’ll see why – there are apparently just a handful of people who are willing to “out” themselves as Trump supporters on national TV.
After all, how can you possibly tell a political pollster that you’re seriously thinking of voting for a man who appears to be purposely running his campaign into the ground with bizarre comments, awkward tweets and controversial bullying statements?
But on social media, it’s a whole different ballgame. That type of reckless offline behavior is what you’ll encounter every day online. If you’ve ever been trolled or bullied on social media, you know what it’s like when people are anonymous. They can say anything they want, and they can say it in a way that they never would in public. And it’s exactly those people whom the Trump camp seems to be courting with his behavior.
That’s why social media could be the real predictor of success in this year’s presidential election. Social media researchers at both Dublin City University and the Technical University of Munich have found that the single biggest predictor of electoral success is the volume of mentions on social media. You can think of this as the number of times that a candidate is mentioned in tweets or tagged in an Instagram photo from a campaign rally. The basic logic boils down to this: if people are talking about you on social media, you are going to do well in the polls.
And there are other social media proxies that might become good predictive tools. Twitter follower growth, for example, is generally cited as an important variable. If your Twitter followers are growing faster than your opponents, that tends to show momentum.
There are also social media sentiment tools – such as Happy Grumpy that attempt to gauge the popular sentiment online to see which candidates are resonating with the public. According to these metrics, Trump may not be doing as poorly as many in the mainstream media think. In fact, Happy Grumpy claims to be 1-2 weeks ahead of conventional polls in terms of sentiment shifts.
So, do you trust the telephone media polls that predict a Clinton victory, or the social media metrics that appear to favor Trump?