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Is Twitter making it harder for Democrats to win in 2020?

Posted at 9:53 AM, Jul 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-19 13:17:27-04

There’s a great piece in The New York Times Friday where Jonathan Martin talks to a trio of female Democratic governors who voice their concern that the party’s 2020 nomination fight is shifting too far left, ideologically speaking. One section really jumped out at me:

“The broader risk for the party, they say, is that too many of the candidates are courting only a segment of the liberal base rather than the entirety of the more moderate Democratic coalition.

“(Rhode Island Gov. Gina) Raimondo and (New Mexico Gov. Michelle) Lujan Grisham both urged the candidates not to become consumed by the affirmation or opprobrium of Twitter.

“‘A month or two before my primary I was getting crushed on social media,’ Ms. Raimondo said, recalling the challenge she had from the left last year. ‘My friends were calling me, saying, ‘Gina you’re going down’ and then we won by 20 points.'”

The influence of social media — but, in particular, Twitter — on the fight for the Democratic nomination is huge. While Twitter isn’t something that is used every day by the average American (a Pew study earlier this year showed that 22% of American adults use the service) it is absolutely ubiquitous in the world of politics and media. Every political reporter not only has a Twitter account but usually keeps a screen always open with Tweetdeck or some similar Twitter browser. Ditto the political operatives staffing these campaigns. And the candidates themselves also use Twitter constantly — issuing statements, breaking fundraising news and communicating with supporters via the social media platform.

It’s easy, given just how much of the 2020 campaign is being conducted via Twitter (and that’s even before we deal with President Donald Trump’s tweets) to assume that the judgments made on Twitter — especially by influential liberals — are reflective of the broader judgments of the Democratic Party.

Except that we know that’s not actually true. In CNN’s most recent 2020 Democratic primary poll, 50% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning registered voters identified as “liberal” while 48% called themselves either “moderate” or “conservative.” That’s broadly consistent with lots of other polling data out there on how Democrats see themselves. A Gallup survey conducted earlier this year showed 52% of Democrats calling themselves either moderate (35%) or conservative (17%), while 46% said they were liberals.

So why then is there — according to Raimondo, Lujan Grisham and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan — a belief among Democratic politicians that what Twitter thinks is a stand-in for what the broader party thinks?

Two reasons, both unique to the way in which Twitter works:

1) Extremes sell: I don’t mean “sell” in the traditional sense since, usually, opinions aren’t being sold on Twitter. Instead, I mean that taking an extreme view — in this case on the liberal end — is the surest way to rack up likes and retweets on Twitter. And those things are the coin of the realm, since they ramp up your profile (not to mention your ego). So being the loudest and most liberal voice on Twitter sells — and gets the most attention.

2) Mob mentality: Twitter — especially the way political partisans use it — operates like a mob. Send a tweet the mob doesn’t like? They will find you and ratio you. (Trust me, I know from experience.) That makes politicians very leery of sending any tweet that doesn’t jibe directly with liberal hegemony, for fear of drawing the mob’s ire — and the resultant press coverage that can come from being singled out as a bad or uncommitted liberal.

Combine the ubiquity of Twitter among the political class (especially on the left) with these two Twitter-specific traits and you get politicians who convince themselves that Twitter is the whole universe. Which is remarkable given that only 1 in 5 Americans even use Twitter and, again according to that Pew study, 80% of all tweets come from just 10% of most active users.

But this is politics. And politics is not always (often?) governed by logic.