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Democrats Are Getting Destroyed in the Immigration Debate on Twitter

Top 2020 Democratic candidates for president aren't being heard on the issue.

by David Uberti
Jun 26 2019, 9:21pm

The photo of a father and daughter’s bodies laying face down in the Rio Grande River reignited outrage among Democrats over the Trump administration’s policies at the border.

But you wouldn’t know it from the conversation on Twitter. There, the top Democrats running for president have failed to resonate on the immigration issue, allowing President Trump and immigration hardliners to define the debate.

“Immigration” appeared in just 0.3% of all mentions of the top-five polling Democrats between March 17 and June 16, according to Twitter data shared with VICE News.

The relative silence continued last week as the situation on the southern U.S. border spiraled.

That leaves a giant opening for Democrats Wednesday night who have an opportunity to define it on Trump’s favorite communications platform. “These data show us this is where the big opportunity is tonight and tomorrow: Immigration is the low-hanging fruit,” said Michael Cornfield, director of George Washington University’s PEORIA Project.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren signaled she plans to do just that when she travelled to the Homestead detention center to lead a protest on Wednesday, hours before the first debate begins in Miami.

With help from the data firm Crimson Hexagon, Cornfield’s team analyzed 36.4 million Twitter mentions of Trump and five top Democrats since Dec. 17: former Vice President Joe Biden; South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris. The researchers then combed through those mentions for keywords such as “immigration,” “healthcare,” and “fake news.”

Just a fraction of Americans use Twitter, which veers toward news junkies and media types. But conversation on the platform can provide a rough gauge of how political elites frame discussions around candidates. That activity primes mainstream media narratives, in turn influencing how campaigns are understood more broadly.

As Trump has pounded immigration as a core re-election issue, Twitter discussions about Democrats have gravitated elsewhere. The PEORIA Project/CrimsonHexagon data suggest that Harris has been most associated with the topic among the Democrats, drawing more than 35% of all immigration-related mentions since December.

Over the past week, however, Sanders has surged to more than 64% percent of such mentions. Chatter around immigration and Biden has lagged far behind throughout.


“Joe Biden — who’s running on his association with Obama and animus toward Trump — what’s his issue? He doesn’t have one,” Cornfield said, adding that he and other candidates could jump on the recent news coverage of the border crisis. “I would expect to see some grandstanding tonight.”

Here are some other takeaways from the PEORIA Project/Crimson Hexagon data:

Biden vs. The Democratic World

Biden — the presumptive frontrunner — soaked up nearly 40% of all Twitter mentions of the five Democrats between March 17 and June 16. That ticked upward to 49% in the week that ended on Monday. That engagement largely aligned around the keywords “Trump,” “Obama,” “women,” and “Sleepy Joe.”


“Pocahontas” no more

Warren appears to have escaped some of the backlash to her dubious clalim to Native American ancestry. Cornfield said the Massachusetts senator received more Twitter mentions in the 24 hours after releasing a DNA test in October than Trump did in the day after his most recent State of the Union. Her mentions between December 1 and March 15 included “Pocahontas” — Trump’s favorite epithet — and “DNA Test” more than any other keyword besides “Trump.”

“It made a tremendous impression on Twitter,” Cornfield said. “But it’s died down considerably.”

After a series of policy proposals that have drawn positive media coverage and helped Warren climb up primary polls, her mentions are more aligned with discussion around Biden, healthcare, and her campaign slogan, “I have a plan for that.”

Trump reigns supreme

It’s no surprise the president dominates Twitter, but the extent to which he does so is shocking. Between Dec. 17 and June 24, as the 2020 Democratic primary began in earnest, Trump drew more than 53% of all mentions of the six candidates analyzed.

“Trump is not on stage during the debates but he can register in the conversation via Twitter,” Cornfield said.

That could be particularly true starting tonight, as the Tweeter-in-Chief has threatened to live-tweet a crowded debate where potential competitors could get as little as 6 minutes of airtime apiece.


Cover: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks through a megaphone while surrounded by the media outside the Homestead Detention Center, where the U.S. is detaining migrant teens, in Homestead, Fla., Wednesday June 26, 2019. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald via AP)