Commentary Politics

Resistance to Trump Isn’t Russia Obsessed—It’s Policy Oriented. Here’s the Proof.

Sean McElwee, Jason Ganz & Colin McAuliffe

We found that Republican insistence that Democrats are focusing only on the Russia probe, and doing so at the expense of meaty policy discussions, is false.

Pundits would have you believe that the U.S. left is obsessed with Russian election meddling and the Mueller investigation and that we don’t have policy goals besides opposition to Trump. Like most of the beliefs held by centrist pundits, this view has less to do with facts and mostly reflects the “common knowledge” of a handful of Washington insiders.

But what does the data say the #resistance is actually resisting? What topics are provoking the most widespread reaction?

We looked to Twitter, which for better or worse is an important platform for political discourse. With Republicans in power constantly blasting out messages about their plans to gut health care, reproductive health services, and environmental protections, we need a new metric to answer the question: Which tweets are getting the most negative reception?

Through our analysis, we found the Twitter conversation was most highly engaged around big policy battles, most notably the failed Obamacare repeal and the Republican tax plan. This engagement is most heavily targeted at “moderate” Republicans whom the Democrats would need in order to stop policy from getting to the president’s desk. 

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The core metric for this analysis is a new variant we created off “The Ratio”. The Ratio is calculated by looking at the number of replies to a tweet compared to how many people favorited it—tweets with a more negative community response have many more replies than favorites. The Ratio has provided the Twitterverse with an answer to the question: “What is a bad tweet?” But it doesn’t answer the question “What are the worst tweets?” or at least which the Twitterverse has found most distasteful.

In short, it can’t tell you which issues are driving the Democratic base.

To solve this we created the Ratio Richter, a new mathematical formula for ranking the worst tweets. This provides an interesting lens into which topics are causing waves in political discourse. We crunched the numbers and found that contrary to what the pundits what say, it’s policy that drives the most intense dialogue.

To understand this, first you need to get to know the Ratio Richter scale.

The Ratio Richter solves the critical limitation of the standard ratio measure: It is unable to distinguish between identical ratios of different magnitudes of engagement (NERD ALERT—the formula for the Ratio Richter scale is ln(replies/likes) * log(replies). More info on our methodology here).  

In the pre-Richter era, a tweet that receives four comments and one like has the same ratio as a tweet that receives 4,000 comments and 1,000 likes. Clearly, the latter is a bigger deal than the former, but the go-to metric for measuring the shittiness of tweets isn’t able to distinguish between them.

Take these two tweets, each with a ratio of around five replies for every like.

The tweet by Rob Portman is your garden variety Republican hypocrisy. The tweet certainly wasn’t popular, with a mere 22 likes for 121 people replying for a ratio of 5.5, as of this writing. Rubio speaking against gun control just days after the Parkland shooting saw much more engagement, with 7,200 comments and 1,500 likes for a ratio of 4.8.

While Portman’s tweet has a higher ratio, it certainly seems like the Twitterverse was more upset about Rubio’s tweet. This is where the Ratio Richter comes in. Under the Richter, Portman’s tweet measures a mere 3.6. Rubio comes in at a very respectable 6.2.

With the Richter formula accurately selecting the true standout Ratios, we compiled a data set of every tweet by a senator since Trump’s inauguration and selected the top 100 tweets with the highest rating on the Ratio Richter scale—the Bad Tweet Hall of Fame.

Here’s what we found.

What Gets Richter’d

One thing that the Richter makes clear is that big policy battles really are the things that get the most attention on Twitter. While Fox News personality Tucker Carlson claims the left is obsessed with Robert Mueller and the Russian investigation, the vast majority of tweets in the Ratio Hall of Fame are about serious policy issues.

In fact, Obamacare repeal and the Republican tax bill, the two most significant policy battles of Trump’s presidency, make up more than half the tweets in Bad Tweet Hall of Fame.

The next two were the events in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, shooting and the confirmation battles around Betsy DeVos. While less explicitly tied to a specific policy, both of these are consistent with an online discourse focused around high-profile policy battles.

One concern is the lack of highly ratio’d tweets connected to the judiciary. With Republicans having stolen a U.S. Supreme Court seat from President Obama in order to appoint a far right ideologue in Neil Gorsuch, we would hope to see sustained pressure toward Republicans on this front. This fits in with ongoing Data for Progress research showing that Democrats significantly underestimate both the importance of the judiciary and the threat it poses to the progressive agenda.

Who Get’s Richter’d

In terms of who appears in the Richter Hall of Fame, there are three main groups who consistently get the highest Richters:

  • A moderate* Republican (and especially a woman)
  • A Republican from a blue(ish) state
  • A Republican without a large online constituency

It’s not surprising to see GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins at the top of the list: They are among the Republican senators most likely to get pressure from the left when it comes to important policy. It is notable to see the two female moderates at the top of the list, while two of their male counterparts, Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, have 4.6 times fewer tweets in the Richter hall of fame. Even being a senator doesn’t protect you from the hordes eager to correct a woman online.

The second group consists of senators like Pat Toomey, John Cornyn, and Rob Portman. These are your replacement level, boring Republicans. These guys are tweeting roughly similar content to the louder Republicans on Twitter such as Sens. Ted Cruz or Tom Cotton, but lack the necessary charisma to earn enough likes from conservative users to offset the negative reaction they get from online liberals.

The third category is the smallest, containing just Cory Gardner and Dean Heller. These are Republicans from blue states who don’t even pretend to represent the views of their constituents.

Meanwhile, Democrats are almost entirely left out of the Richter hall of fame. The only Democrat with a tweet in the top 100 is Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who nabbed the 40th-highest ratio with her announcement that she would vote to confirm former Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt. Heitkamp is a moderate and a woman, both of which are consistent with the evidence seen on the Republican side regarding what predicts high Richters.

* There is no such thing as a moderate Republican. They are all extremists. But some occasionally pretend they aren’t.

Not Just a Shiny Toy

The benefits of the Ratio Richter are twofold. First, by looking at the topics that drive engagement on Twitter, we can push back against the false narrative that Democrats are only focusing on the Russia probe at the expense of policy. Secondly, we can see the issues that most fire up Democrats (or at least Democrats on Twitter), which could be useful when thinking about driving engagement heading into the midterms.

While it’s not going to come as a huge surprise that health care, taxes, and gun safety motivate Democrats, this data can be useful for helping to craft messaging that will rally the base heading towards November.

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