Last week, the Green Party held its convention in Houston, Texas to nominate Jill Stein as its candidate for president. The other major third party in the U.S., the Libertarian Party, chose Gary Johnson as its candidate back in May. While no third-party candidate has ever been elected president, the record high disapproval ratings for the two major party candidates (Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and Donald Trump for the Republicans) suggest that voters may pay more attention to third-party candidates than they have in the past.
Third parties play a strange role in American politics. Some scholars have observed that the structure of the American political system makes it hard for third-party candidates to win, in large part because of the winner-take-all elections. Third parties in America more often act as pressure groups. For example, Ross Perot, the Reform Party presidential candidate in 1992, brought the issue of budget deficits to the public’s attention, which encouraged Bill Clinton to reduce the annual deficit while he was president (even to the point of running a budget surplus in 1998–2001). Though it is still unlikely that a third-party candidate has a chance to win (on July 30, RealClearPolitics’s poll average for July 18-29 put Johnson at 7.3% and Stein at 3.0%), perhaps one of these candidates will be seen as playing the role of spoiler, like Ralph Nader when he ran as the presidential candidate for the Green Party in 2000.
Given the possibility that Johnson and Stein may be more prominent than third-party candidates usually are, it’s worth paying attention to how they campaign. This article looks at how Johnson and Stein used Facebook and Twitter over the past several months, comparing their activity with candidates from major parties. (I chose Stein and Johnson because they appear on enough state ballots that they could win the 270 electoral votes needed to be elected. Other third party candidates do not appear on enough state ballots to win the election.) The Illuminating 2016 project uses computational methods to provide a data-driven look at how the candidates use Facebook and Twitter. Our algorithms classify each message by what it is trying to do: for example, calling the reader to engage in some type of action, providing information in a neutral manner, or advocating for or attacking a candidate. We break some of these categories down further, for example classifying attacks as focused on a candidate’s image or their issues.
Our data collection for Johnson begins on January 6th, 2016 and our collection for Stein begins on May 5th, 2016. Generally speaking, Stein uses social media as much as or more than major party candidates; Johnson, on the other hand, is far less active. For example, in the month of June, Stein was the most active presidential candidate on social media, posting 785 messages. Clinton followed with 731 messages. Trump sent 516, while Johnson posted only 221 times. This trend holds looking at May through July: Stein posts more than 3 times as often as Johnson does.
The Green Party is a progressive party with a strong focus on environmental issues. The 2014 Green Party Platform describes the party as “committed to environmentalism, non-violence, social justice and grassroots organization.” The Platform advocates “safe, legal abortion”; “affirms the rights of all individuals to freely choose intimate partners”; calls for “thoughtful, carefully considered gun control”; proposes “shifting tax from individuals to corporations” and “taxing ‘bads’ not ‘goods’”; and suggests reducing the federal debt while funding “our environmental and social needs.”
Even before receiving her party’s nomination, Stein was actively pushing the Green Party message out through Twitter and Facebook. By early July, it became clear that Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee after a hard-fought Democratic primary campaign where Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders tried to convince Democrats to support him instead of Clinton in order to advance a more progressive agenda for the Democratic Party. Since Sanders endorsed Clinton on July 12th, Stein has worked hard to convince Sanders’ supporters that they should shift their support to her as the standard-bearer of true progressive policies and as a genuine outsider. A few hours after Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton, Stein took to Twitter to call on his supporters to join her to “keep the political revolution going,” saying “We don’t need the Democrats.” In her attempt to win over the “Berners,” did Stein adopt a social media strategy like Sanders?
Looking at overall numbers from January 1 to July 31, her strategy does not look that similar to Sanders’. In many ways, it appears to be closer to Clinton’s. For example, consider calls to action—messages that ask people to take some action on behalf of the campaign, such as sharing a campaign message with their friends or attending a campaign event. In a recent study, the Illuminating 2016 project found that Sanders used considerably more calls to action than Clinton. Stein’s use of calls to action (16%) is closer to Clinton’s (15%) than to Sanders’ (21%). Stein’s use of informative messages (19%) is also more similar to Clinton’s (18%) than Sanders’ (13%).
If you look at types of strategic messaging, the story is similar. Of Clinton’s strategic messages, 61% were advocacy, while 39% were attack; 71% of Sanders’ were advocacy, while 29% were attack; 62% of Stein’s were advocacy, while 38% were attack. While all three of these candidates advocated more often than they attacked, Sanders went on the attack substantially less frequently than Clinton or Stein. Given Stein’s hard push for Sanders’ supporters, it’s somewhat surprising that her social media strategy is in many ways closer to Clinton’s than to Sanders’.
As the Illuminating 2016 project has found, the Democrats in general talk about issues in their strategic messaging more than Republicans do. That said, Clinton still advocates or attacks on the basis of image more often than issues (see here for how we use the terms “image” and “issue”), with 53% of her strategic messages focusing on image rather than issues. Sanders, on the other hand, advocates and attacks on the basis of issues almost twice as often (63%) as he does on the basis of image (37%). Here, Stein charts her own course, splitting the difference: 47% of her strategic messages focus on image, leaving a slight majority to focus on issues.
Stein also does not closely mirror Clinton’s or Sanders’ strategy when it comes to types of calls to action. Clinton encourages far more digital engagement (49%) than Sanders (30%) or Stein (29%). Sanders encourages people to get out and vote considerably more (30%) than Clinton (23%) or Stein (21%). Stein encourages more traditional engagement (36%) than Clinton (20%) or Sanders (29%). Each campaign chose to emphasize different types of engagement, perhaps reflecting larger campaign strategies.
For example, Stein encourages traditional engagement to help her campaign gain access to the ballot in as many states as possible (as of August 7th, Stein is on the ballot in 24 states and in Washington, D.C.).
Sanders sent more messages encouraging people to vote, perhaps reflecting a concern that many people who support him were less likely to vote, especially during the primaries.
Clinton may be less concerned with encouraging traditional engagement (like volunteering) or voting because she has in a place a strong field organization for mobilizing supporters in key states. Instead, she has used Facebook and Twitter to encourage people to learn more about her by participating in Q&As or sending in their support for her where others could see it, creating a climate of positive opinion around her candidacy.
Stein’s activity on Facebook and on Twitter are different in several noteworthy ways. First, she sent far more messages on Twitter (2265 between May 5th and July 31st) than on Facebook (359 during the same period). Second, more of her messages on Twitter were strategic (63%) than on Facebook (44%); she used Facebook more for informative messages (34% versus 17% on Twitter).
So far in the campaign, Stein’s use of the different types of messages has remained fairly consistent. While she has sent more Facebook and Twitter messages each month than the previous month, the relative frequencies of each type of message have not changed much. It’s still early in her campaign, but so far it looks like her campaign has found a social media strategy they like and they’re sticking with it.
The Libertarian Party is the party of small government, sometimes described as socially liberal and fiscally conservative. The 2016 Libertarian Party Platform says this: the “government should be kept out of the matter” of abortion; “consenting adults should be free to choose their own sexual practices and personal relationships”; the government should not make laws restricting or monitoring ownership of firearms; there should be no income tax; and the government should not be allowed to spend more money than it brings in.
While Stein works hard to attract Sanders’ supporters, positioning herself as an alternative to the Democratic nominee, Johnson’s positioning is less clear (social liberalism and fiscal conservatism is a strange position in American politics). Some polls suggest that he could pull support from both Clinton and Trump in a three-way race.
Johnson generally uses social media less than other candidates. He also uses it in unique ways. Johnson uses calls to action more often (19%) than Clinton (15%) or Trump (10%). He also uses informative messages (31%) far more often than Clinton (18%), but roughly at the same rate as Trump (29%). He uses strategic messages (40%) far less often than either Clinton (57%) or Trump (47%).
Drilling down into types of strategic messages, Johnson advocates (64%) more often than he attacks (36%), and he focuses on image (74%) more often than on issues (26%) when doing either. He attacks less often than do Clinton (39%) or Trump (43%), and he talks about image more often than Clinton (53%) or Trump (71%).
Johnson’s style of engagement is where he really stands out. While Clinton has a strong emphasis on digital engagement and Trump focuses on a combination of traditional, digital, and “get out the vote” engagement, Johnson stresses his media appearances (40%, to Clinton’s 2% and Trump’s 8%).
This follows from his campaign goal of getting “earned media”—where media outlets cover Johnson’s campaign, giving him publicity that his campaign does not have to pay for. Johnson seems to want to drive traffic to his media appearances by drawing attention to those appearances on Twitter and Facebook. This allows him to get out his message without paying for advertisements, perhaps leading to a self-reinforcing cycle of increased attention. As a third-party candidate with a smaller pool of people contributing money to his campaign, Johnson cannot afford to put as much money into spreading awareness of his name and policies as Clinton or Trump. Free coverage is particularly important for him.
There are noteworthy differences in Johnson’s messages on Facebook and his messages on Twitter. Johnson sends far more messages on Twitter (715 between January 1st and July 31st) than on Facebook (276 messages during the same time). On Facebook, more than 50% of Johnson’s messages are informative, with only 24% being strategic. On Twitter, 40% of his messages are strategic and only 31% are informative. Like Stein, Johnson uses Facebook more frequently for informative messages and Twitter more frequently for strategic messages.
Unlike Stein, Johnson has emphasized different types of messages at different points in the campaign. In the months before the Libertarian National Convention, Johnson increasingly used strategic messages, highlighting his strengths and others’ weaknesses. Beginning in late May, Johnson began to use social media to inform his followers of media appearances, coinciding with a decrease in the frequency of strategic messages. This use of informative messages matches with his “earned media” strategy mentioned above (many of the informative messages inform readers of his media appearances). Other categories show more moderate changes over time, including a decline in the frequency of calls to action and conversational messages and an increase in ceremonial messages.
We might expect third-party candidates to be avid users of social media to get their message to the public. Compared to traditional campaign strategies, social media is cheaper, requires fewer staff members to reach the same size audience, and does not rely on traditional media to amplify the message. This analysis reveals that Johnson isn’t using social media nearly as much as the other candidates, though, missing an opportunity to engage his supporters directly.
This analysis also suggests that Stein isn’t simply Sanders 2.0. Rather than emulating his campaign’s social media strategy, Stein has acted more like Clinton on Facebook and Twitter. She may be calling for Sanders’ supporters to join her, but she isn’t using the social media strategies that helped Sanders start his revolution.
Sam Jackson is a PhD candidate at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School and a research assistant on the Illuminating 2016 project. For more on Illuminating 2016, visit their site.