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Social media analysis: At the keyboard, Americans slightly prefer Romney

MSNBC's Richard Lui breaks down Facebook and Twitter for both the Republican and Democratic conventions.

President Barack Obama may lead former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in most presidential polls, but in the social media campaign, Romney has had the edge for months, according to NBCPolitics.com's computer-assisted analysis of 2 million campaign-related Twitter and Facebook posts.

M. Alex Johnson M. Alex Johnson is a reporter for NBC News. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

In recent weeks, Obama has generally led Romney by two to seven percentage points in national polls, which carefully select their samples to reflect Americans most engaged in the election and registered to vote.

The picture is different among Americans who have gone online to talk about the election, however — NBCPolitics.com's analysis indicates that that narrower sample of the country prefers Romney by 36 percent to 32 percent overall and by 51 percent to 49 percent when they're compared head to head:

Crimson Hexagon Inc.

Since May 29, when he clinched the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney has commanded the support of slightly more commenters on social media than has Barack Obama. (None of the Above reflects clear statements of intent to vote for a third candidate or refusal to vote for either. In a direct head-to-head comparison, Romney's lead is 51 percent to 49 percent.)

As NBCPolitics.com launches a comprehensive daily tracking report on social media sentiment about the 2012 presidential election, the results reveal an intriguing difference between the opinions of Americans who are specifically targeted by scientific polling operations and those who proactively take to their keyboards to broadcast their views without gatekeepers.

More social media analysis from NBCPolitics.com 


The data are unique among those being reported by national news organizations, whose social media analysis has largely focused on two metrics: "buzz," or how much each candidate is talked about online in general, and "effectiveness," or how extensively each candidate is using social media as a campaign tool.

NBCPolitics.com's analysis, by contrast, explores the actual content of what is being said, providing a glimpse at what issues are specifically driving people's opinions.

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NBCPolitics.com uses a tool called ForSight, a data platform developed by Crimson Hexagon Inc., which many research and business organizations have adopted to gauge public opinion in new media. It isn't the same as the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll or other national surveys, which seek to reflect national opinion; instead, it's a broad look at what's being said by Americans who follow politics and are active on Facebook, Twitter or both, and why they're saying it.

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Romney led Obama by 53 percent to 47 percent over the weekend among all comments that expressed a clear intention to vote for one of the two candidates. That margin has been typical ever since May 29, when Romney is generally considered to have sealed the Republican nomination; in all such comment over that time, Romney leads by 51 percent to 49 percent.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tells NBC News' David Gregory that Mitt Romney needs to focus on women and minorities — advice that is supported by NBC News' social media analysis.

Several factors could account for the variance from national polls. For one thing, statistical experts have long acknowledged that people are more motivated to speak out when they have a grievance — in other words, opponents of Obama may be more motivated to post than are supporters satisfied with the status. Social media analysis is interested in capturing and reporting that structural divide, while controlled national polls have a different mission: capturing a representative sample that proportionally reflects all opinions.

Moreover, when commentary on each candidate is broken down into specific issues driving positive and negative assessments, certain themes that have little to do with politics or policy recur: Eight percent to 10 percent of Obama's negative sentiment, for example, always rests on the fact that he is African-American or on the misconception that he is a Muslim.

Neither factor on its own is enough to register as one of Obama's top negative drivers, but together they are more than enough to compose a bedrock of general opposition that he confronts before legitimate policy disagreements are even factored in, one that helps explain Obama's consistent negative rating of about 60 percent since NBCPolitics.com began tracking the social media campaign in January.

The flip side, however, is that the passion of such opposition is mirrored in the depth of enthusiasm for Obama. Most favorable sentiment falls into issue-specific categories like health care or the president's perceived role in the recovery from the recession that began in the final year of George W. Bush's presidency:

Crimson Hexagon Inc.

Topics of positive discussion around Barack Obama are heavily weighted toward specific policy issues, especially health care.

Romney's appeal, by contrast, is broader (his approval rating has been about 50 percent since he clinched the nomination, 10 points higher than Obama's) but not as deep. Positive sentiment for Romney is heavily weighted toward nonspecific personal or strategic assessments — he seems smart, or he's a Republican with a legitimate shot at winning this time around:

Crimson Hexagon Inc.

Topics of positive discussion around Mitt Romney are heavily weighted toward general discussions of his electability.

Another factor is that while mainstream news media and polling firms — like the campaigns themselves — are focusing on the economy, everyday people who sound off on their own initiative prefer to talk about issues that are personal to them: health care, especially, but also social class and women's reproductive rights, according to NBCPolitics.com's analysis.

Since May 29, when the November matchup was settled, through Sunday, health care has driven the largest proportion of both positive and negative commentary about Obama, and by large margins:

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Barack Obama positive social media drivers, May 29-Aug.26.

Crimson Hexagon Inc.

Barack Obama negative social media drivers May 29-Aug.26.

Similarly, the top negative drivers for Romney are predominantly comments on his "otherness" — his wealth, his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — and his stance on issues focusing on women's rights:

Crimson Hexagon Inc.

Mitt Romney negative social media drivers May 29-Aug. 26. ("RINO" is a conservative epithet for candidates who are considered "Republican In Name Only.")

The picture that emerges is one of a campaign that's as much about personalities as it is about core politics, and the data reflect that Americans love or hate Obama, while they merely like or dislike Romney. Romney's selection of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his vice presidential running mate this month was widely interpreted as a move to sharpen his image; we'll examine how well or poorly that worked later this week.

Track the social media discussion on NBCPolitics.com