Twitter Taunts and Tirades: Negative Campaigning in the Age of Trump
Justin H. Gross, (@justinhgross), University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Kaylee T. Johnson, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
What drives candidates to “go negative” and against which opponents? Using a unique dataset consisting of all inter-candidate tweets by the seventeen Republican presidential candidates in the 2016 primaries, we assess predictors of negative affect online. Twitter is a free platform, and candidates therefore face no resource limitations when using it; this makes Twitter a wellspring of information about campaign communications strategy given a level playing-field. Moreover, Twitter’s 140-character limit acts as a liberating constraint, leading candidates to issue sound bites ready for potential distribution not only online, but also through conventional media, as tweets become news. We find that tweet negativity and overall rate of tweeting increases as the campaign season progresses. Unsurprisingly, the front-runner and eventual nominee, Donald Trump, sends and receives the most negative tweets and is more likely than his opponents to strike out against even those opponents who are polling poorly. However, candidates overwhelmingly “punch upwards” against those ahead of them in the polls, and this pattern is hardly limited to attacks against those near the top. Sixty of 136 candidate pairs are characterized by lopsided negativity in one direction and only one of these sixty involves a clearly higher status candidate on the offensive.