By all accounts, the surprising election of Donald Trump as president was due in part to a social media juggernaut, driven by Trump’s skillful use of Twitter to mobilize supporters and dominate the campaign narrative, as well as the large-scale sharing of news—real and fake—among like-minded tribes.
But 2016 was a social election in another sense, as well. There also was an enormous face-to-face conversation happening among Americans, and those offline discussions proved to be far more predictive of the state of the race in the election’s final 10 days than traditional preference polls. The reason for this offers important lessons not just for political candidates and consultants, but also for consumer marketing professionals.
The marketing equivalent of a presidential preference poll is the brand tracker, a continuous survey of consumers to gauge attitudes toward, and preferences for, Coke versus Pepsi, Walmart versus Target, and Verizon versus AT&T. Like political consultants, marketers care about whether they are winning or losing in their marketplaces, whether their brand is gaining or retreating, and the impact of campaigns.
When marketers are honest with themselves, however, they will admit that brand preferences in tracking polls are stubbornly resistant to movement, and don’t do a very good job of predicting changes in what matters most to them—consumer sales.
Like brand trackers, the preference polling during the presidential campaign of 2016 were stubbornly flat. According to the average of all national polls compiled by the website FiveThirtyEight, Clinton never lost her lead in the polling average after the Democratic National Convention, and her level of support varied in a rather narrow band of 4.5 points, with her zenith on October 26 at 46.0% to 39.6%, a margin of 6.4 points. Even in the final week of the campaign, Clinton’s lead remained between 3 and 5 points, and was actually rising at the very end, to 4 points, on Election Day.
Of course, Clinton won the national popular vote by 2 points, even as she lost the Electoral College vote due to very narrow defeats in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The national opinion polling “miss” of 2 points was actually smaller than the 3-point miss when polls correctly predicted, but underestimated, Obama’s win in 2012.
The purpose of this paper is not to suggest that there was an alternate way to confidently predict the election, because the Electoral College outcome hinged on merely 80,000 votes in the three aforementioned states. But we believe it was possible to show that the possibility of a Trump victory was rising more rapidly in the final week than opinion polls—and related prediction models—showed.
Our firm has been tracking offline consumer conversations about brands for more than a decade. Our methodology is to conduct a daily online survey among consumers to ask them about the product categories and brands they have been talking about in the last 24 hours. The data are fed into our TotalSocial platform, where it is scored and combined with social media data to capture the TotalSocial momentum for leading brands. This is important because statistical modelers have shown that this kind of data explains between 5% and 25% of a brand’s sales, depending on the category.
Although it is not our main line of business, every four years since 2008, we have added a few special questions to pick up the conversation about presidential candidates from the conclusion of the nomination campaigns until mid-November. We also did this in 2016. Only after Election Day did we go back to see what the data showed, and it was startling.
The first thing to know is that conversations about both Trump and Clinton were very negative, in contrast to the mostly positive conversations we see for products and brands. Between Labor Day and Election Day, 53% of all the Trump conversations were negative about him, and 20% were “mixed” positive and negative, while only 26% were purely positive. If you subtract the negative and mixed from the positive, you get a “net sentiment” of -47. For Clinton, it was 43% negative and 21% “mixed” compared to 33% positive, producing a “net sentiment” of -30. That both candidates were so deeply into negative territory tells us something about politics generally, and also about these two candidates, who performed worse than Obama, Romney, and McCain in the last two elections.
More important than the absolute results for each candidate were their relative performances, as well as the trends over time. While both candidates were always firmly in negative territory, Clinton nevertheless enjoyed a persistent lead over Trump that opened up after the first debate and expanded in the immediate aftermath of the infamous audio recording of Billy Bush and Donald Trump.
But there was a sudden change in the net sentiment results that follows immediately after FBI Director James Comey released his letter about a renewed investigation of Clinton emails to leaders of Congress on Oct. 28. Immediately afterwards, there was a 17-point drop in net sentiment for Clinton, and an 11-point rise for Trump, enough for the two candidates to switch places in the rankings, with Clinton in more negative territory than Trump. At a time when opinion polling shows perhaps a 2-point decline in the margin for Clinton, this conversation data suggests a 28-point change in the word of mouth “standings.” The change in word of mouth momentum was stunning, and much greater than the traditional opinion polling revealed.
Based on this finding, it is our conclusion that the Comey letter, 11 days before the election, was the precipitating event behind Clinton’s loss, despite the letter being effectively retracted less than a week later. In such a close election, there may have been dozens of factors whose absence would have reversed the outcome, in particular the influence campaign of the Russian government as detailed by US intelligence services. But the sudden change in the political conversation after the Comey letter suggest it was the single, most indispensable factor in the surprise election result.
In addition to helping us understand how it was possible for Trump to win despite so much polling data that suggested the opposite, these data offer several lessons to marketers and researchers of all types.
- Behavior predicts behavior better than attitudes and opinions do. Presidential elections involve not only a candidate preference choice, but also a choice to vote or stay home. While the Comey letter did little to alter preference for Clinton versus Trump, it did make a difference in motivation of Democrats to vote. The drop in net sentiment for Clinton was largest for Democrats at -19 points, while it remained unchanged for Republicans. Meantime, in the week of the Comey letter release, Trump’s net sentiment improved by 21 points among Republicans and by 6 points among Democrats. Thus it appears that the experience of these conversations depressed Democratic turnout at the last minute, while increasing it for Republicans, making his narrow victories in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania possible.
- The Invisible Offline Conversation Matters. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms offer a conversation that is easily visible to journalists and to the public—but we need to think of social media as just the tip of an iceberg. In addition, there is a large offline conversation that is hidden beneath the surface, difficult to see and measure. That conversation may or may not resemble what we see online. That is why we have our offline conversation surveys, and a TotalSocial measurement platform that included online and offline conversations.
- Conversations amplify the impact of media. We have always had media, and we have always had conversations. But today we are beginning to understand the interplay of the two. Media generate awareness and marketing narratives, while conversations are critical to persuasion. Candidate Trump understood the power of using both new and traditional media to start conversations, which were crucial to both persuasion and motivation. His emphasis on the power of face-to-face was evident in the massive in-person rallies he used during and even after the campaign.
- Humans are a herding species, susceptible to sudden changes in direction when confronted with the right stimuli, and when surrounded by other people of like-mind who are impacted by the same stimuli. Comey’s letter provided the stimuli for a sudden change in the peer influence dynamic that drove the election outcome. The fact that the Comey letter related to emails made it particularly effective since it supported a long-standing narrative about emails that dated back to Clinton’s private server, and to the emails hacked by Russia and released by WikiLeaks.
Political consultants and commercial marketers alike have, for too long, relied on a faulty model that presumes voters and consumers act based on rational, individual choices. What we are learning is that emotion and peer influence play much bigger roles than previously understood. To achieve success in the future, political campaigns and marketers of all kinds need to rely on new models and new tools if they are going to be successful.
Want to see social influence data in action? Download our latest special report, "The Remarkable Influence of Millennial Men," which takes a deep dive into the influence this demographic group has over consumer purchase decisions.