Social Identity & The Changing Face Of Politics (Part 1)

Originally published on on May 5, 2016 By Ben Zeidler
Social Identity & The Changing Face Of Politics (Part 1)
This post was written in conjunction with the Customer Intelligence team at Tenthwave, including Eric Schwamberger, Luciano Calvaruso, Rebecca Beyer, and our social listening partners at Talkwalker.
Presidential politics have long been a game of endorsements. While no single endorsement is a definitive predictor of success, they garner a vast amount of media attention simply due to the inherent public nature of newspapers, past presidents, and non-profits putting their name behind a specific candidate. Aside from polls, it is traditionally one of the most telling signs of strength when it comes to the effectiveness of a campaign and the viability of the candidate. Thus, candidates seek out endorsements from political leaders, civic groups and notable individuals viewed as having influence in a community.
Political prediction whiz Nate Silver has a running endorsement tally (giving weighted points for endorsements coming from representatives, senators, and governors) on his ESPN-funded blog, 538. And while 538 is a quality publication, some of the inferred impact of the endorsements seems…off.

  • At the time of writing, John Kasich, who dropped out of the race yesterday morning, has more endorsement points than presumptive nominee Donald Trump.
  • Meanwhile Trump, who has carried the majority of the states, spent many of his first few months without any endorsements at all and had lagged behind Ted Cruz despite beating him soundly in a number of consecutive primaries.
  • On the Democrat’s side, establishment candidate Hillary Clinton has 504 points (basically everyone in her party) while Bernie Sanders has just 13 points. Of course, the real race is much closer than that – while he’s unlikely to win the nomination, Sanders has claimed 9 of the last 15 races.
  • At the time of the New Hampshire primary (back in February), Chris Christie, who was no longer even in the Republican race, had 18 times the number of points than the winners of New Hampshire (Trump & Sanders) combined.

So despite the classical weight put behind the power of an endorsement, there is a correlative problem when it comes to using endorsements as a proxy for election success.
“Data doesn’t suggest that endorsements move too many votes,” says Pearson Cross, political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “Still, candidates love to be endorsed by people who support their principles.”
Most political scientists agree that endorsements have an impact on elections, but not necessarily a direct one.

“An endorsement is not going to change someone’s mind.
They only serve to legitimize how people are already leaning.”
Joshua Stockley, Political Science Professor (University of Louisiana)

Alone, an endorsement is unlikely to impact much. If voters prefer one candidate over another, “people will continue to ignore the endorsements and vote for people they like. If you’re going to vote for Bill Cassidy for Senate, you’re not going to vote for Mary Landrieu because of an endorsement,” said Cross.
So if traditional endorsements don’t move the needle, what does?
Historically, most people vote for the candidates “most like them.” Perhaps the single most important influencing factor is a voter’s background and identification with the candidate’s social identity (economic class, ethnicity, gender, race, party identification, and religious preference).
To punctuate this, 95% of African Americans voted for Obama in 2008 and 93% in 2012. In 2008, Hillary Clinton received significantly more female votes than male. However, she lost the minority female vote to Barack Obama indicating that, at least in that historic election, race was more binding than gender. Similarly, in 1960, John F. Kennedy, Jr. received 78% of the Catholic vote, and went on to become the first Catholic President of the United States. Similarly, 90% of voters affiliated with a party will vote for that party. People tend to join the party that most influenced their childhood: those who grew up in liberal homes tend to become liberal and vice versa.
Today, however, social identity is not limited to demographic, psychographic, geographic or political affiliation markers. In 2016, a candidate’s social identity is the summation of every action they take and every word they speak as played out in Social Media in addition to every word spoken about them.
2016 is the year that will (and in many cases, already has) mark the shift from classic endorsement politics to a socially-driven race, as the idea of a candidate’s social identity is now on display in the collective social sphere.
In part 2 (released tomorrow), we’ll look at proprietary data specific to this primary season and draw some correlations between the new currency of endorsements – social identity – and its impact on polls.

Social Identity & The Changing Face Of Politics (Part 1)_2
Ben Zeidler
I’m the VP, Customer Intelligence at the Customer Obsessed Digital Agency®, Tenthwave. If you use twitter, please follow me @BenjaminZeidler (if you like ramblings on digital, sports, and food) and @Tenthwave (if you like a daily dose of interesting finds).
Also, check out some of my other LinkedIn posts on a variety of topics including the Google vs. Apple wars and emerging social networks.