Context for Facebook Chatter About Presidential Candidates

by Nathan L. Gonzales April 21, 2015 · 9:48 AM EDT

Millions of people have talked about the presidential contenders on Facebook as they officially launch campaigns. But despite some gaudy numbers, context and limits of the data cast doubt on the impact Facebook conversations will have on the race.

In the 24 hours surrounding Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s Monday speech in Miami announcing his bid for the GOP nomination, 695,000 people on Facebook in the United States generated 1.3 million interactions (likes, posts, comments, shares) related to the senator and his announcement. That’s according to information provided by Facebook Policy Communications Manager Andy Stone, who also is an alumni of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC.

Rubio’s announcement generated a smaller response than his GOP Senate colleagues Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky. In a similar 24-hour period around their launch speeches, 865,000 people accounted for 1.9 million interactions about Paul and 2.1 million people accounted for 5.5 million interactions about Cruz.

But the Facebook conversations about all three Republicans paled in comparison to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s announcement. Stone detailed 4.7 million people generated 10.1 million interactions over a 24-hour period.

Facebook isn’t claiming the interactions are determinative of the election’s outcome. But as these and future numbers are available and reported on, some context is helpful.

The challenge with the data is that it measured Facebook users within the United States. There is no information on whether they are citizens, old enough to vote, registered to vote, likely to vote or live in one of the dozen competitive states that will likely decide the race. And reporting on the number of interactions can be misleading because both positive and negative comments are likely to be included in the total.

Even with Clinton’s larger numbers, they are small compared to the likely electorate. If we assume all of the people who interacted with her announcement on Facebook (4.7 million) are likely voters, that would likely make up less than 5 percent of general election participants, assuming turnout is close to the 129 million voters who showed up in 2012.

A study conducted following the 2010 elections showed 340,000 extra people turned out to vote because of a single election-day Facebook message. That would have been less than one half of one percent of the electorate that cycle.

With potentially a dozen more Republicans yet to announce their presidential candidacies, there is plenty of Facebook interaction to come. But we simply don’t know enough about the users, and the number of users is still small compared to the overall electorate, to draw significant conclusions about their impact on the election.