Trump, Women And ISIS: What Marketers Can Learn From The Social Language Of The 2016 Election

Columnist Chris Kerns dives into the data on the language the presidential candidates are using in the 2016 campaigns and comes away with some insights for marketers.

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Unless you’ve been living under a social media rock, it’s clear that the presidential election season is fully upon us. Between issues, debates, new polling data and building momentum towards the upcoming primaries, headlines and social posts are brimming with political rhetoric, facts and figures and predictions.

Candidates and political groups are proving to be more social than ever this year, with social channels growing in influence, changing the rules and shifting how candidates think about marketing.

Here in the Spredfast Research & Insights department, we’ve been collecting data about candidates and their messages over the past few months. We’ve been particularly interested in the language used by each candidate and how audiences are responding to various talking points, topics and calls to action.

The overall takeaway is that language matters for marketers, political or not. We waded through the political social language to figure out:

  • Which words and phrases are being used the most by presidential candidates for the 2016 election, and which of these cause their audience to share and engage with the content?
  • Which topics should each candidate be mentioning with increased frequency — and which talking points should be put out to pasture?

Let’s dive into the data and find out.

The Data

From a data perspective, we grabbed each current candidate’s recent Twitter history to create a database of more than 40,000 tweets from 2015, removing all retweets and replies.

We then used a process called natural language processing to sift through the words used by each candidate. Our analysis removed some common words like “the” and “of” — called “stopwords” — that we weren’t interested in for this study.

As we sifted through the data, we focused on the top frequently mentioned terms across all candidates. We weren’t interested in words mentioned once here or there — we wanted to examine consistent performance for terms — so terms mentioned by a candidate fewer than five times weren’t included in results. See a full list of the most frequently mentioned terms at the bottom of this post.*

predfast analyzed top frequently mentioned terms and their engagement rate for the tweets of candidates, including Bernie Sanders.

For candidates’ tweets, including Bernie Sanders’ (shown here), Spredfast analyzed top frequently mentioned terms and their engagement rate as compared to a benchmark rate.

In addition to frequency counts, we collected data on the engagement (the retweets and likes) for each piece of content. We used engagement as a measure of effectiveness — the more retweets and likes a tweet received, the more it resonated with each candidate’s audience.

Frequent Social Language

We started by pooling all the social data together and checking for the most frequently used terms across the entire field of presidential hopefuls.

Top Twitter Terms Across Presidential Candidates

What topics and terms are candidates using the most?

  • “America”: This term straddles the aisle, seeing mentions in seven percent of tweets across both Republican and Democratic candidates. As you’ll see below, most candidates should consider swapping this out with “United States.”
  • “Join”: This call to action is frequently used in five percent of tweets by candidates, and it was the top term used by Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina. Should it be used this much? We’ll get to that in a minute.
  • “Hillary”: Hillary Clinton is the top candidate being mentioned by her own campaign and others, appearing in four percent of tweets from the field. (The term “Clinton” also appears in +1.5 percent of all candidate tweets.)
  • “Obama”: Frequently used by Republicans (in more than three percent of tweets) in an attempt to rally their base. Mentions are used with the highest frequency by candidates Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush.

Focusing On Effectiveness, Not Just Frequency

High-level views across all candidates give us some guidance toward best practices, but every marketer knows that their individual audience is different from the industry as a whole. In order to offer strategic direction on a social content strategy, we need to get down to the candidate level.

So let’s look at a few candidates’ posting patterns– not only which terms are being well-received by their audience, but also how often each candidate is mentioning those topics.


To do this, we’ll map terms on a graph for each candidate based on two axes: how well the audience responded to the language (retweets + likes) versus how often the candidate used each term. Don’t worry, it will make more sense in a minute.

With the graphs below, we created three main sections:

  • Should Mention More (blue): The top left side of the graph represents terms that are enjoying above-average engagement but aren’t used frequently; candidates would be wise to tweet these terms more.
  • Continue Mentioning (green): The center section of the graph shows a healthy balance between terms being used frequently and high engagement from the audience. Presidential hopefuls with tweets here should keep doing what they’re doing.
  • Should Mention Less (red): The bottom section of the graph shows terms receiving low engagement, no matter how often they are being used in social posts. Social teams for the politicos in the race might want to consider reducing the mentions of these terms.

Language Analysis: Donald Trump

Trump Social Language

  • What should Donald Trump tweet about more? Any mentions of “Islam” show top performance for Trump, and the same goes for name-checking Bernie Sanders.
  • What should Donald Trump continue to do on Twitter? A recent push of tweets mentioning women’s rights received a positive reaction from his audience, as do terms like “ISIS” and “Muslim.” Calling out President Obama and Hillary Clinton — some of his most-used terms — yields consistently solid retweet and Like rates from his followers.
  • What should Donald Trump tweet about less? Trump should avoid mentions of himself — “Trump” is the term used most (in almost 18 percent of his posts), but it receives below-average engagement. He should also avoid pushing his book and asking others to “join” in his campaign.

As mentioned above, Trump’s recent volley of content mentioning “women” has not only received a positive reaction from his audience, it’s the most positive engagement on that topic we’ve seen over the past few months.

Before a recent collection of five tweets on the subject, “women” was one of Trump’s worst-performing social terms. But with the fresh push from his campaign, the tide has turned.

We can track mentions of “women” against the Twitter response over time to see the pattern of growing engagement from his followers for the term.

Trump Social Mentions Women

Let’s move on to another high-polling Republican candidate, Dr. Ben Carson.

Language Analysis: Ben Carson

Carson Social Language

  • What should Ben Carson tweet about more? Calling out Hillary Clinton sees the best response from his audience, and mentions of “Syria” and “refugee” are top-performing terms that aren’t used very often.
  • What should Ben Carson continue to do on Twitter? Talk about “ISIS,” “liberty” and “women” receives solid social engagement for Carson. He should also continue to mention “God” (but not “religion”).
  • What should Ben Carson tweet about less? Mentions of his own name, as well as his book, are not strong performers. Also, campaign-heavy terms like “pledge,” “town hall” and “join” do not prompt engagement from his followers.

Now on to Florida’s Marco Rubio.

Language Analysis: Marco Rubio

Rubio Social Language

  • What should Marco Rubio tweet about more? Rubio’s audience responds well to his talk around “Planned Parenthood” and any mentions of the “United States” (but not necessarily “America”).
  • What should Marco Rubio continue to do on Twitter? Mentions of the “Middle East” and “ISIS” are seeing a good response, and so are any name checks of “Hillary,” which his followers respond to better than mentions of “Clinton.”
  • What should Marco Rubio tweet about less? “Obamacare” mentions don’t drive engagement from his audience, and mentions of his slogan, “the Next American Century,” don’t do well, either. “Iowa,” “campaign” and “join,” much as we’ve seen across most candidates, receive a poor reaction.

Let’s not forget the Democrats. Will we find the same patterns on the other side of the aisle? Let’s start with Hillary Clinton.

Language Analysis: Hillary Clinton

Clinton Social Language

  • What should Hillary Clinton tweet about more? “Muslim” and “religion” see some of the best retweets and likes of any terms from her Twitter feed. Mentions of “freedom” show the highest engagement of any term, but she doesn’t tweet the term that often.
  • What should Hillary Clinton continue to do on Twitter? When Hillary calls out Jeb Bush and Donald Trump, it drives solid engagement. As we’ve seen with other candidates, use of the term “United States” is highly favored by the audience over “America.” In addition, Clinton is one of the few candidates seeing positive engagement on education-related topics (along with Bernie Sanders).
  • What should Hillary Clinton tweet about less? Her tweets refer to herself in the third person in high volumes, and mentions of “Hillary” show some of the worst performance of any term. Economic terms, like “working family/ies” and “economy” aren’t resonating with the audience, either. “New Hampshire” mentions, while obviously targeted at the local audience in that state, fail to drive engagement across her wider follower base.

And now let’s keep moving on to Vermont’s Bernie Sanders.

Language Analysis: Bernie Sanders

Sanders Social Language

  • What should Bernie Sanders tweet about more? Mentions of “Trump” show his highest engagement of any term, and discussion around “Planned Parenthood” also sees a positive reaction from his audience.
  • What should Bernie Sanders continue to do on Twitter? Senator Sanders should keep discussing the topic of “college” and affordability and stay focused on women’s issues.
  • What should Bernie Sanders tweet about less? Campaign-heavy terms like “join,” “campaign,” “Iowa” and “town hall” are seeing low engagement.

More Than Just Words

As we’ve seen, by getting smart about language patterns, campaigns and marketers can test different tactics to check an audience’s response. It’s important to note that these findings aren’t set in stone: We know that the effectiveness of these terms will ebb and flow with current events and topic saturation.

But having a smart approach to a social team’s communication strategy can only raise a candidate’s — or your — performance.

Remember to choose your social language wisely with your audience in mind, check the competition to see what’s working for them, and experiment with new content strategies frequently.

And, of course, don’t forget to vote.

*Terms and phrases found across all candidates’ social feeds included the following language: “trump,” “rubio,””hillary,” “clinton,” “carson,” “jeb,” “obama,” “bernie,” “immigration,” “borders,” “refugee,” “syria,” “isis,” “isil,” “iraq,” “islam,” “middle east,” “muslim,” “foreign policy,” “putin,” “north korea,” “school,” “college,” “education,” “women,” “planned parenthood,” “economy,” “tax,” “job,” “middle class,” “working family/families,” “minimum wage,” “medicaid,” “social security,” “gun violence,” “equal pay,” “health care,” “obamacare,” “wall street,” “human rights,” “voting rights,” “climate change,” “global warming,” “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “religion/religious,” “god,” “revolution,” “america,” “united states,” “freedom,” “liberty,” “security,” “nuclear,” “nsa,” “patriot act,” “join,” “fight,” “help,” “hope,” “promise,” “looking forward,” “pledge,” “town hall,” “bumper sticker,” “new hampshire,” “iowa,” “washington,” “fact check,” “last night,” “poll,” “campaign,” “century,” “book.”

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Chris Kerns
Chris Kerns has spent more than a decade defining digital strategy and sits at the forefront of extracting insights from digital data. He is the VP of Research & Insights at Spredfast, a social software platform that empowers enterprise organizations to connect with consumers in an increasingly social world. His research has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, USA Today and the The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. He is also the author of Trendology, the first book to dive into the advantage brands can build using a data-driven approach to real-time marketing.

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