WASHINGTON - For those looking for a new way of gauging the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney, Twitter has created its own political index, aimed at breaking down user sentiments toward both candidates.
The social media service, working with partners specializing in opinion research and data analysis, will provide a rating of each candidate on a scale of 1 to 100, updated every day.
As shown in the accompanying chart, Obama currently has a 34 rating and Romney 25. As opposed to being a direct evaluation of their popularity among Twitter users, those figures are based on a comparison between the tweets containing references to either candidate and the Twitter universe as a whole.
Topsy, a separate company focused on data analysis, analyzes the approximately 400 million tweets sent daily on all topics, ranking the most positive at 100 and the most negative at 1.
Tweets referring to Romney or Obama either using their Twitter handle or name are evaluated on the scale, then compared with the rest of the gathered tweets. Hashtags and other means of referring to either candidate are excluded by the algorithm. That same algorithm is intended to eliminate the influence of sarcastic or humorous references to the candidates by averaging them in with the rest of the mentions.
“It’s a leap of faith that the left uses sarcasm as much as the right,” Adam Sharp, who runs government, news and social innovation at Twitter, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
So Romney’s score of 25 means that 24% of all tweets are more negative than those referencing the former Massachusetts governor, and 75% are more positive. Sharp stressed that the score isn’t aimed to be a rating on individual tweets, but instead to serve as a look which percentile the average tweet would fall into.
Twitter is far from representative of the electoral public though, with a recent Pew survey finding that 15% of online adults are on Twitter, with 8% using it daily. And adoption rates of the social network expectedly skew toward the young, with 26% of 18-29-year-olds tweeting, with just 14% of 30-49-year-olds and 9% of 50-64-year-olds joining them.
This, of course, brings up a question of just how useful Twitter’s index can be, but going back to Aug. 2010, there is some correlation between the political index and Gallup’s approval/disapproval polling.
Sharp said that instead of replacing the likes of Gallup, the index will add to their findings to present a “meaningful window into conversations” that were previously limited to coffee shops and water coolers, providing “texture” to traditional polling methods.
Sharp cited the swift spike in Obama’s index rating following the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011, which at that point generated more tweets than any other news event, as an example of what texture meant. Polling on Obama’s favorability held strong in the following days and weeks. But over the next two months on Twitter, there was more discussion on economic matters than on all national security issues combined, including Bin Laden’s death.
That discussion, Sharp admitted, was limited by an inherent stumbling block in the index’s methodology – the fact that only those tweeting about politics would have their voices heard. Those not tweeting “@MittRomney is the best” or “@BarackObama is the worst” have no influence on the index, regardless of their political beliefs.
Both Obama and Romney’s campaigns have increased their expenditures on digital outreach, with Obama already passing the $16 million he spent on online marketing in 2008, and Romney more than doubling John McCain’s $3.6 million in the same year. Accusations that some of Romney’s spending has been focused on artificially inflating his following on Twitter, which lags behind Obama’s 18 million at 800,000, have been adamantly denied by his campaign.
And any metric of success could prove useful as improvements are made to the algorithm powering the political index, but Sharp said Twitter had no immediate plans to extend the project outside of the presidential race, let alone as part of the company’s efforts to further monetize itself (Pepsi vs. Coke index anyone?).
Along with Topsy, the left-leaning Mellman Group and more conservative North Star Opinion Research partnered with Twitter to build and maintain the index along with ensuring its ideological balance. Topsy will feature additional analysis on the index’s findings as the race goes on.