There is only one Democratic primary candidate that outperforms Trump on Twitter

Analysis of Twitter hashtags of candidates for US elections done by Prospectus Research in collaboration with Oraclum Intelligence Systems uncovered a host of interesting results.

Judging solely by online activity over the past two weeks, only a single candidate in the Democratic primary race outperformed Trump on Twitter – Tulsi Gabbard.

Prospectus Research performed an in-depth text analysis of all tweets and retweets of official candidate hashtags from 21st to the 30th of October. This included recognizing the behavioral pattern of each tweet; what are people talking about when referring to each candidate, what are the key emotional cues, what are the moral concerns, and the personalities of the supporter base for each candidate.

The analysis only included official campaign hashtags to gauge the actual support for a candidate, hence eliminating potential negative comments whilst using a separate method to eliminate the impact of bots and fake accounts. Official hashtags used were for example, #tulsi2020 or #kamalaharris2020 or #Trump2020, rather than just #Gabbard, #KamalaHarris or #Trump. The official campaign tags are much more likely to be used by actual supporters or people who have something constructive to say about the campaign, rather than smear campaigns or hate messages. 

Gabbard’s official campaign hashtag, #Tulsi2020, had more than 12m retweets during the 9 observed days, Trump’s campaign hashtag, #Trump2020 around 8m, while #JoeBiden (the official Biden campaign hashtag) came third, slightly short of 6m. All other primary candidates were not even close to these numbers. It is also interesting to note that, comparing their relative position in the polls to their Twitter performance last week, it seems that only Gabbard and Yang were overperforming their relative positions. This means they were being more active on social media than their polling numbers rank them. Joe Biden was about the same, whereas all others, including Warren and Sanders were severely underperforming. 

Nevertheless, even with Tulsi outpreforming Trump this week, compared to online activity of Trump supporters the Democrats are collectively taking a heavy beating on Twitter. 

Emotional cues, moral concerns, and personalities of voters

Observing total retweets was just the first step. We then dived deeper into the data and uncovered some of the key moral concerns addressed by voters when discussing their candidates. First we looked at the average markers for the five moral domains*. The dominant moral domain was the ingroup loyalty.

The moral concern for ingroup got a huge burst on the 27th, the day that Gabbard’s retweet storm started, triggered by allegations from Clinton. Purity followed a day later, presumably in response to the ongoing discussion, however it also coincided with Yang’s retweet bump.

Both in-group Loyalty and Purity are what is called binding moral foundations that create group cohesion and are usually more prominent in conservative voters. Loyalty especially translates into strong feelings of attachment and obligation to the group we identify with. Overarching group to identify with being the nation, whilst it can also signal loyalty to the party or the candidate. People high on this moral foundation tend to approve actions that bring cohesion, advantage, benefits and well being to the group even if those actions are costly. In a sense, in the context of partisanship, this is the most important moral foundation and research has indicated how Loyalty not only predicts partisan strength but also predicts voting intentions. Loyalty along with Authority and Sanctity or Purity are more prevalent in Conservative voters, and this finding can signal that either the conservative voting body was engaged in this tweet bump or that Gabbard’s supporters tend to to hold a distinct moral profile within the Democrats party. More precisely, as a recent study has shown, people whose identities are fused with a group and have a deep visceral feeling of oneness with a group, be that a nation or their party, equally support binding foundations (Loyalty, Authority, Purity) as do the conservatives. Meaning that it is possible that Gabbard has, through her own actions and character but also through recent accusations that posed a threat to the ingroup, gained a very powerful and dedicated base of followers that will be engaged to support and defend her online and also be motivated  to vote on the upcoming elections.

Next came the social concerns that were key for the campaign. Tulsi Gabbard’s supporters spoke a lot about friends and family, most of all the candidates, that is in lieu with in group loyalty domain. On the opposite end Kamala Harris’ and Elizabeth Warren’s campaigns or supporters were not at all interested in friends. Given that family and friends are often key transmitters of trustworthy information via word of mouth a successful campaign should start placing a greater emphasis on these dimensions.  

Moral concerns by hashtag show that Trump and Gabbard are the most concerned with ingroup morality. None of the candidates besides Tulsi Gabbard are significantly pro ingroup. Identity is a well-established psychological predictor of voting behavior, but this interaction works for all parties and for independent voters. Given Trump’s begrudging acceptance by Republicans, who are often offended by his disregard to the military (which is a key identity marker for American moderates and conservatives), and Gabbard’s status in the Armed forces, her ability to engage him in the general election looks overwhelmingly positive. She is the only person coming close among her other primary contenders in this category. 

When it comes to personalities of the analyzed postings markers for agreeableness and conscientiousness are both extremely low across all candidates followers. 

In terms of Neuroticism, Kamala Harris’ and Pete Buttigieg’s campaign followers are the most neurotic, while Biden and Warren’s are the least. 

As for Openness, a typical characteristic of political liberals, it is interesting to note that Trump’s campaign is low in openness (thus possibly attracting a lot of conservatives), but no lower than Tulsi Gabbard’s. However, Biden and Buttigieg are the lowest in openness, meaning that they attract the biggest pool of conservatives for the Democrats. The Sanders supporters are, by this category the most progressive and liberal. That is, persons high Openness apart from holding more liberal and progressive attitudes have broad interests and prefer novelty over convention.

Most of the supporters for different campaigns are indistinguishable when you look at their personalities. Trump supporters look nearly identical statistically to Sanders’ supporters. The only clear difference is that Tulsi Gabbard’s supporters appear to be far more conscientious than any other group. Consciousness again, is related to orderliness and thoroughness and preference for structure. It has also been related to conservative attitudes and traditional religiosity for instance.

What does it all mean for the campaign?

These results are particularly worrying for all Democratic party candidates who want to take on Trump in 2020 – none, except for Gabbard, has the social media prowess to seriously compete with him online. A recent article by the New York Times confirms this intuition suggesting that the Democrats are seriously lagging behind Trump on social media and online in general. While the Trump campaign is spending massively to raise supporters online, the Democratic candidates are struggling to adapt to the new political landscape.  

Gabbard’s Twitter overperformance shouldn’t be surprising given that on the 27th of October she was called out, albeit indirectly, by Hillary Clinton accusing her of being groomed by the Russians (which was later corrected as she was referring to the Republicans, not the Russians) to run as a third-party candidate and thus undermine the party’s nominee to benefit Trump in 2020. Her row with Clinton garnered much attention, both in the media and especially on social media, as exemplified by what we see in our data.

One explanation behind such dramatic overperformance of Gabbard on Twitter is that this is indeed a covert operation by online trolls or even foreign entities which target social media accounts of candidates polling at lower numbers in order to infiltrate and radicalize their supporter base and potentially disrupt the frontrunners. Even if this is not true in the case of Gabbard it still presents a potential threat to the party which seems to have no effective digital strategy to combat Trump or his supporters.  

In general it is very hard to explain where exactly this is all coming from, as also noted by FactBase:

Tulsi Gabbard has a social media presence that doesn’t correlate with any data outside social media. She’s seen a huge increase, statistically, in followers and subscribers, but those increases don’t match up with any similar-size news event or in her polling visibility.”

The vast online activity from last week has yet to translate into polling numbers for Gabbard. She is still polling at around 2% nationally, with very low probability of upsetting the race. However, if online activity is any indication of actual voting behavior, as we’re led to believe by the hypothesis being thrown around for the 2016 election, Gabbard could be the only candidate with wide enough online support to challenge Trump on social media.

This type of analysis could be done on a weekly basis tracking the performance of each candidate and figuring out which messages resonate and which do not among supporters. Clearly Gabbard’s messages in the wake of Clinton’s accusations touched a positive nerve among supporters online. More importantly they resonated among moderates and swing voters (and perhaps even leaning Republicans), the key demographics that need to be courted in order to win an election. 


The analysis was conducted in collaboration between Prospectus Research and Oraclum Intelligence Systems.
Prospectus Solutions AS is a Norwegian based AI and simulation design company that has developed new platforms around its Multi-Agent AI technology. One of its key current projects is the VOSA system (Virtual Online Society Analytics) which creates digital twins of real world social networks to allow for market and message testing using their Multi-Agent AI architectures at scale. More at . Earlier work by Prospectus has been used to predict religious extremism, Trump, the Catalonian Referendum, and global social stability.
Oraclum is a data science and market research company that uses the power of social networks and machine learning to predict election outcomes, market movements, product demand, and consumer behaviour. In 2016 we have successfully predicted
both Brexit and Trump. Our work includes doing survey experiments, data science modelling, and complex network and social network surveys. 

Authors: Justin Lane (PhD Cognitive Anthropology, University of Oxford), Igor Mikloušić (PhD Personality Psychology, University of Zagreb), Vuk Vuković (PhD Political Economy, University of Oxford)


* Moral foundations theory is a theoretical framework created by Jonathan Haidt, Rav Iyer, Sena Koleva, Craig Joseph and Jesse Graham. They drew from the rich history of morality research within both psychology and anthropology in order to identify the full scope of human moral landscape and the reasons behind cross cultural differences and similarities in morality. Their theory proposes the existence of five universal, innate and evolved psychological modules that make us value certain traits as virtues and view certain behaviors as morally commendable or reprehensible. 
– The care module, that expanded from our kin attachment system, makes us concerned with the wellbeing of others and responsive to signs of distress and harm. It is represented through the virtues of nurturance, kindness, empathy, and compassion.
– The fairness module, evolved as both a means to avoid exploitation and to enable reciprocally altruistic relationships, makes us sensitive to inequality, non-proportional compensations and cheating. It is manifested through virtues such as justice and righteousness.
– The loyalty module, evolved through forming and maintaining strong coalitions, binds us to a group. It is best represented through the virtues such as patriotism, self-sacrifice for the group heightened feeling of group loyalty and sensitivity to betrayal.
– The authority module, evolved through a long history of hierarchical social structures, manifests itself through the respect and desire for social structure and authority, valuing leadership or followership, hierarchy, traditionalist and contempt for either illegitimate authority or disrespect for authority, societal rules and/or roles.
– The purity module, evolved on top of our disgust and pathogen avoidance modules, is represented by promoting behaviors that suppress our biological desires and preserve of our minds and bodies from harmful ideas or pathogens. It is represented through values such as chastity, purity, temperance.
And although the foundations are thought to be universal how much emphasis a person will put on certain foundation, or which foundation will be central for understanding a moral issue will depend on the environment and culture as well as personality and temperament of the person. Theory gained prominence through findings which demonstrated that liberals (or in their case Democrats) and conservatives (or Republicans) differ in the weight they put on each of these foundations. Individual oriented moral foundations tend to be more represented with liberals (Care/Fairness) whilst group oriented moral concerns are more salient in the conservatives, although conservatives seem to value individual oriented moral concerns as well. For more information visit

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