Election ’15-The party leaders on Twitter

You might have seen that tweet, and its French-language twin that declared “Prets” after Justin Trudeau swept to power on Oct. 19. It was one of the most re-tweeted of the night, shared thousands of times after Trudeau’s team posted it late that evening.

The tweet must have perfectly captured how Trudeau’s supporters felt after the multi-million-dollar pummeling of “not ready” ads during the campaign. But the tweet also reflected what seemed to me a far more social-media-savvy Liberal campaign.

I thought I’d have a bit of fun and examine how often the three main party leaders used Twitter before and during the 2015 campaign. I looked at tweets from the @JustinTrudeau account, the @ThomasMulcair handle and the combined traffic for Stephen Harper’s two unilingual accounts, @pmharper and @premierministre.

The simple numbers on volume tell part of the story of how well each of the three leaders “got” Twitter, or at least found it useful. I used a simple Python script to grab each leader’s tweets from January 1, 2015 using the Twitter Rest API (that’s the one you use to download tweets after the fact).

I was expecting to find that all three leaders would have tweeted more and more the closer they got to election day, as the stakes got higher. This turned out to be true for Mulcair and Trudeau, with around 420 and 655 tweets and retweets respectively in September. But Harper peaked in April, before sliding mostly downward, with a small bump to 88 in September. He also had far fewer tweets than the other two leaders.

Mulcair's tweets increased steadily to a peak in September.
Trudeau's tweets showed a steeper spike in August and September.
Harper's tweets actually decreased in the months before the election.

This rather crude analysis, of course, doesn’t include any tweets that any of the leaders may have deleted and it leaves out many important factors that affect impact on Twitter such as how many followers each leader has, how much each leader interacted with voters, the proportion of tweets that were retweets and how often each leader’s tweets were themselves retweeted.

Nonetheless, Trudeau was the Twitter volume champ among the big party leaders, with more than 3,000 tweets and retweets to his name this year alone. Mulcair was about a thousand behind that and Harper trailed with about 1,200. The disparities and differing approaches (e.g. Harper separating English and French) probably reflect both strategy and reality. There was a large untapped pool of younger voters, and Trudeau clearly went after it on social media. Harper, on the other hand, probably knew there weren’t that many voters on Twitter for him, as his base skews older and male, not the Twitteratti.

Harper’s feed felt more “one way,” less interactive, repeating campaign messaging more than drawing voters in. Both Trudeau and Mulcair’s feeds had a more relaxed feel, speaking with voters rather than at them. Even the home-page pictures used by the leaders showed something of their approaches. Trudeau and Mulcair showed themselves surrounded by crowds.
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Harper’s picture, on the other hand, showed him standing behind a lectern, a scenic lake in the background, with the backs of the heads of older adults in chairs on either side, and a few younger people sitting behind him. The effect was intended to be prime ministerial, one suspects, a leader speaking to his supporters.
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Also interesting has been the approaches of the three leaders after the election result. We have no idea from Twitter what the outgoing prime minister thinks of it all; he has barely been heard from. After appealing five times on election day, in English only one might note, for voters to support the Conservatives, he posted one tweet on Oct. 22 to commemorate the anniversary of the attack on Parliament Hill.

Since then, there has been silence. To be fair, his people may have felt that since was soon not to be PM, further tweets from an account called @pmharper might be inappropriate. That said, a goodbye or thanks might have helped complete the connection with his followers.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has continued to tweet and in a classy move both congratulated Trudeau and thanked Harper for his service to the country.

For his, part, Trudeau (or the people who tweet for him) has somewhat kept up the pace since election day, seemingly inviting Canadians along for the journey with him. We know it’s mostly image making, but it shows a more deft touch with social media than the Conservatives displayed.

How much any of this actually affected the election is guesswork. Twitter is a relatively small corner of the voter universe, so probably the impact was muted, but among voters who were following the leaders, they definitely saw a difference.

Now that he is actually taking power, will Trudeau keep it up? Or will he become more remote as he becomes more familiar with power? Will we see a @pmtrudeau account?

Actually, there is a @pmtrudeau account. It has existed since November 2012 and is in the name of Justin’s late father Pierre. Its bio reads, “I’m holding this place for my son…” November 2012 was a month after the son launched his bid for the leadership. I have no idea who owns this account but it will be interesting to see if there is any change after Wednesday’s swearing in of the new Trudeau government.

For now, we know for sure that our new prime minister’s team is pretty social media savvy. I doubt that can be maintained at the same level given the realities of governing, but no doubt they will be trying, as will the parties who oppose them.

Ed’s note: Since this post was written, the @pmharper account has changed to @stephenharper