With the race for the White House in 2016 now in full gear, it seems new polls are being released almost daily. On the Republican side, Donald Trump has owned top spot in national polls, on average, for all but three days since last summer.
But who is winning the social media war among presidential candidates? Which candidate has gained the most followers, likes, shares, and retweets in 2015? And what might that mean for their ability to convert social engagement into voter turnout in 2016?
By any measure, Donald Trump’s Facebook performance in 2015 has been impressive. The billionaire real estate mogul and reality show star has gained just over 3.3 million Facebook followers since he announced his campaign for the White House on June 16, a nearly 200 percent growth.
While Trump enjoys the top spot in terms of overall followers on Facebook with almost 5.1 million, it was Ben Carson (287 percent) and Bernie Sanders (368 percent) who saw the most Facebook page growth in 2015 since each candidate respectively announced their run, according to CrowdTangle, a social media analytics and tracking tool.
In total interactions on Facebook, which includes all likes, shares, and comments on individual posts, Trump also leads the pack with 54.7 million for the year, but Carson is close behind.
Trump is generating more Facebook engagement while posting only half as frequently than other presidential contenders. His average posts per day in 2015 came to slightly less than two, while other candidates who generate far fewer interactions were posting to Facebook between three and five times each day.
The top Facebook post for the year among all presidential candidates was Ben Carson’s #IamaChristian photo in October, which exploded on both Facebook and Twitter. The post on Facebook now has more than 1.1 million likes and 181,000 shares.
On July 18, about one month into his campaign, Trump posted a text-only message on military veteran healthcare that generated 734,000 likes and 191,000 shares, his most-engaged post for the year.
And a post just last week from Trump wishing Americans a Merry Christmas generated 700,000 likes and 50,000 shares.
Compare these numbers to top Facebook posts for the year by Jeb Bush (348,000 likes), Marco Rubio (108,000), and Ted Cruz (101,000). On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders’ top Facebook post for the year, a response to Trump’s anti-Muslim comments in early December, generated 301,000 likes.
One of Hillary Clinton’s best Facebook posts for the year was a video from a speech she gave responding to Trump’s “divisive rhetoric” about Mexican immigrants. The post now has 170,000 likes and nearly 200,000 shares.
But it was a photo of Hillary and Bill posted on Christmas morning that generated the most social engagement for Clinton in 2015:
Facebook announced in December that the most-talked-about topic on the platform in 2015 was the 2016 presidential election. Remember what 2012 was like on Facebook? Some people actually lost friendships and un-friended family members over politics and the presidential election on the social platform. We can all only imagine what 2016 holds in store on Facebook. How soon might Americans hit the burnout stage? And will that perhaps impact apathy and voter turnout?
Trump has, no doubt, mastered the art of using social media not only to reach an audience - audiences larger than those tuning in to network news shows and most cable news shows combined - but his campaign’s social media strategy has enabled him to drive topics and conversations among an even broader media landscape. One single Trump tweet has proven to steer conversations for days among traditional media.
In 2015, Trump relied almost exclusively upon free media, often sparked by something said on social media, spending only little more than $200,000 on radio ads in Iowa. His campaign, until now, has spent nothing on television ads.
Team Bush's $41M on ad spending and Team Rubio's $20M vs. Trump's $217,000 (as of today) pic.twitter.com/H2cryche4H
— Mark Murray (@mmurraypolitics) December 29, 2015
"I love to tell this story where I've spent nothing and Bush has spent $59 million,” Trump told a South Carolina crowd on Wednesday.
But with Trump now preparing to spend as much as $2 million per week in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, it seems the billionaire’s days of free media and publicity will soon come to an end.
“I’ll be spending a minimum of $2 million a week and perhaps substantially more than that,” Trump told reporters Tuesday night during a press conference in Council Bluffs, Iowa aboard Trump Force One, the candidate’s personal 757 aircraft.
"We are going to start spending a lot of money because I don't want to take any chances,” the billionaire reiterated in South Carolina on Wednesday.
On Twitter in 2015, Trump’s domination was pretty much the same as it was on Facebook. For the year, he earned 16.1 million retweets and likes, more than Clinton (5.7 million) and Sanders (4.7 million) combined. However, it’s important to point out that Trump tweeted much more frequently, posting, on average, 21 times per day, compared to all other candidates who tweeted between four and eight times per day.
But this is where Trump used the micro-blogging service to his greatest advantage. Trump understands fully the power of a single tweet. He sees the campaign against his fellow Republicans as a “war”, he stated this week.
Since he launched the campaign in the summer, Trump’s unique, bulldog approach on Twitter and Facebook has served to rally and rile up his base of supporters and agitate his opponents.
Even today, the final day of 2015, Trump pulled no punches in mocking the former Florida governor’s low standing in the polls, tweeting, “I would feel sorry for @JebBush and how badly he is doing with his campaign other than for the fact he took millions of $'s of hit ads on me.”
Dozens of tweets like this throughout the year, where Trump openly taunts and makes fun of the weakness of his foes, shows how he’s used the platform to effectively reinforce his lead and topic-steer traditional media, as well as help set the agenda for publicly-televised debates.
Even on Christmas Eve, after tweeting he’d be attending a church service in Palm Beach, Trump launched attacks on fellow candidates, tweeting this about Hillary Clinton:
Hillary said "I really deplore the tone and inflammatory rhetoric of his campaign." I deplore the death and destruction she caused-stupidity
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 24, 2015
And earlier in the day, Trump had slammed Bush yet again:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 24, 2015
Trump certainly knows how to generate likes, shares, and reaction on social media, and has proven he can dominate traditional media headlines while spending next to nothing on his campaign. But whether the billionaire businessman can continue his media manipulation strategy into 2016, and continue to carry enough support through primary season remains to be seen.
Will Trump finally run out of steam? There’s not much indication of that, at least yet. There are now only 74 days until the Florida primary in March. If Trump can just secure wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and a handful of other smaller state primaries, there may be just no stopping him by March 16 when he faces three other GOPers with ties to the state, including the former governor and sitting junior senator. In the latest poll there, Trump leads Rubio by 15 points, Bush by 17, and Carson by 22.
Will candidates, and mainly Trump, be able to convert these massive numbers of Facebook likes and shares, and Twitter retweets and likes, into actual votes in the upcoming state primary elections?
Trump has stated if he’s selected as the 2016 Republican nominee, voter turnout will be the highest in decades. Talk is cheap, but we’ll soon see if Trump supporters will put their votes where they put their clicks. While the general election is still over 300 days away, the next 60 to 90 days could go down as one of the most interesting, and surprising, in presidential primary election history.
But in the meantime, while pouring significant new funds into traditional media, there’s no reason to think Trump will stop padding his leads with the power of such a simple and free tool to reach the masses - Facebook and Twitter.