Not all Democratic primary voters are as “woke” as your Twitter feed
Many engaged Democrats debate the merits of the large field of presidential candidates on social media, and this conversation can influence media perceptions of these candidates. However, it’s natural to wonder if this online conversation is representative of Democratic primary voters more generally. While 22% of the American population is on Twitter, this population differs significantly from that of the U.S. as a whole, being younger, more likely to identify as Democrats, and more highly educated. The content of online politics may also be skewed. Social media fosters information in its most extreme, most attention-getting form due to the promotion of posts that get the most interaction, whether positive or negative. For these reasons, Barack Obama recently warned of the dangers of “certain left-leaning twitter feeds.” He cautioned that, “Even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision we also have to be rooted in reality.”
Our analysis of the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study helps us to explain how Democrats who post on social media differ from Democrats more generally. The survey includes a question asking respondents whether they had ``posted a story, photo, video or link about politics” on social media. The survey is also matched to voter files, so we can identify respondents who voted in a primary election in 2018. Of the nearly 10,000 Democratic primary voters surveyed in 2018, only 27% said that they had recently posted something about politics on social media. These social media active Democratic primary voters are more likely to be white and are about four years younger on average compared to Democratic primary voters who did not post about politics on social media. But on other demographics, such as gender and education, the groups look remarkably similar.
But what does this mean when it comes to the types of opinions that these social media active Democrats are likely to espouse when they post about politics? The graph below shows support for Medicare for All, a ban on assault weapons, and DACA among Democratic primary voters depending on whether or not they reported posting about politics on social media. In each case, the graph shows support for each policy while controlling for age. Notably, the differences here are quite small. Democratic primary voters are about 4 percentage points more likely to support Medicare for All, 3 percentage points more likely to support DACA, and are about equally likely to support a ban on assault weapons. Thus, if you were using your social media feed to infer support for these policies among all Democratic primary voters, you wouldn’t be far off the mark.
But this does not mean that social media active Democratic primary voters are unremarkable; in fact, they differ quite a bit from Democrats who are not on social media when it comes to how “woke” they are on racism and sexism. To see this, we look questions asking respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statements:
White people in the U.S. have certain advantages because of the color of their skin.
Feminists are making entirely reasonable demands of men.
These statements capture key dimensions of identity-based politics that have become increasingly important with Donald Trump’s rise to prominence. Indeed a significant amount of time during Democratic debates has been spent on issues related to the challenges faced by racial minorities and women and these attitudes seem to be important predictors of support for candidates in the nomination race.
The graph below shows the percentage of Democratic primary voters who strongly agreed with each of the above statements based on whether or not they reported posting about politics on social media. As with before, we controlled for age in these analyses. Here the differences are much greater. Democrats who post on social media are 18 percentage points more likely to agree that “feminists are making entirely reasonable demands of men” than those who are not on social media. This indicates a significant difference in opinion and beliefs about gender equality between those who post on social media and those who do not. These Democrats are also much more willing to acknowledge the existence of racism in America. In fact, Democratic primary voters who posted on social media were 15 percentage points more likely to agree that white people have advantages because of the color of their skin. Again, these large differences exist even after we control for the fact that those posting on social media tend to be younger.
What does this mean? For Democratic activists who largely engage in political discussions online, there is a danger in being misled about how “woke” Democratic primary voters actually are. While it is true that Democratic primary voters are significantly more progressive on issues of race and gender compared to the general population, the large share of Democratic primary voters who are not on social media are somewhat more moderate than their online counterparts on these issues. This also suggests that, for the most part, policy issues are perhaps less of a dividing line among Democratic primary voters than are issues related to identity politics. And understanding that divide may go a long way to helping Democrats understand why some candidates appear to get much more support in the polls than they do in their social media feeds.
Laurel Bliss is a senior majoring in Political Science at Tufts University.
Brian Schaffner is the Newhouse Professor of Civic Studies in the Department of Political Science and Tisch College at Tufts University. @b_schaffner