If you were to get all of your news last month from Twitter (and, well, maybe you did), you might reasonably conclude that the Democrat to beat in 2020 is none other than a 37-year-old Indiana mayor with a knack for linguistics and a tongue-twister of a name . According to the social media monitoring service Crowdtangle, Pete Buttigieg got the most interactions on Twitter of any Democratic candidate in the month of March. But if you were to take just one glance at how much cash each Democratic candidate has—a time-honored proxy for figuring out who the front-runner is—you would see that same name, Pete Buttigieg , way down toward the bottom of the list of 2020 contenders.
That stands to reason, of course. The candidate with the biggest bank account, Senator Bernie Sanders, declared his candidacy long before Buttigieg and already had a robust list of donors from his 2016 presidential run. The second richest, Senator Elizabeth Warren, transferred more than $10 million from her senate race, and the former Maryland congressman, John Delaney, donated nearly $12 million of his own money to his campaign.
And yet it's hard to ignore the glaring gap between Buttigieg's success on Twitter and the other, more tangible metrics, like money, that have traditionally framed the presidential horse race. The disparity raises a distinctly modern question about campaigning in the social media age: What value does a candidate's internet stardom have?
Issie Lapowsky covers the intersection of tech, politics, and national affairs for WIRED.
The biggest problem with answering that question is that there's limited data to work with. Twitter, after all, is just 12 years—or precisely three presidential cycles—old. We know that at least one president masterfully used it during his campaign to circumvent the press, drive the news cycle, and command more coverage than all of his competitors combined. But Donald Trump was already far more famous than anyone he was running against, making it a little unfair to compare his dominance on social media to that of unknown candidates like Buttigieg or, say, Andrew Yang , both of whom rose out of relative obscurity to become darlings of the internet.
As The Upshot recently pointed out, there are ample stats indicating that Democrats on Twitter do not, in fact, represent the broader Democratic electorate. Off of social media, the Democratic Party is more moderate and less news-obsessed, while the Democratic Twitterati are more white, more college-educated, and more active in protests and political fundraising.
A cursory comparison between candidates' overall funding and their popularity online would seem to suggest that viral success on Twitter is a weak proxy for the health of a campaign overall. That is, with the exception of Senator Kamala Harris, who excels at both.
By comparison, popularity on Facebook hews a bit more closely, though still not exactly, to the fundraising stats. Facebook also has a much larger user base than Twitter.
So, does this mean that Buttigieg, and other candidates who take off on Twitter, ought to be written off as creatures exclusively of the internet's chattering class? Not necessarily. All that online conversation may indicate who the most viable candidates are, as the first quarter fundraising numbers show. With the exception of Yang (sorry, #YangGang), the top performers on Facebook and Twitter were also the top fundraisers in the first quarter, which ended on March 31.
There's a logic to that, too. If Democrats on Twitter are more politically engaged than their offline counterparts, it stands to reason they'd be more likely to throw their money behind the candidates they spend their days retweeting. When it comes to counting individual contributions, not just massive cash infusions from the donor class, that matters. According to an analysis by The Washington Post, Sanders, Buttigieg, and Yang raised the most money from small dollar donations. Small dollar donors are nothing if not reliable voters and volunteers.
The question is which of these metrics matters most. The 2016 race obliterated the standard assumptions about what makes a front-runner. During the Republican primaries, former Florida governor Jeb Bush's war chest of early funding made him look poised to win. During the general election, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton routinely out-raised Trump and the Republican National Committee.
In the end, though, it was the candidate who dominated Twitter and Facebook who came out on top. Speaking of that candidate, Buttigieg and his fellow Democrats all have a long way to go if they want to catch up: Not only did President Trump's campaign raise more money than every Democrat last quarter, but last month on Twitter, he earned ten times more interactions than even Mayor Pete.
And, of course, just because a candidate is driving a lot of conversation on social media doesn't mean they're particularly well-liked. Just ask Howard Schultz .
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