Using social media to understand what matters to voters in the midterm elections

By Sydney Heimbrock, PhD, Jenna Milani, PhD and Nicole Martin, MPH

Social media has revolutionized our world, providing real-time commentary on social and political issues across the globe. Decision makers – particularly in government — intuitively understand that social media offers a rich source of insights into what community members are thinking and feeling. But polling alone could inadvertently miss what’s on people’s minds. The very act of crafting questions and identifying issues to focus on assumes researchers understand what’s driving behaviors and attitudes. 

Unlocking the potential of social media data by turning open-ended chatter into actionable insights could help decision makers be more proactive in responding to emerging trends before they become intractable problems. But given the volume of data, the diversity of conversations and the distinction between what people say and what they actually do, how, exactly, can governments achieve this? 

Better listening, greater empathy 

We set out to help solve this complex challenge through an innovative research project rooted in social listening between September and October 2022. Using Qualtrics’ Social Connect and XM Discover, we decided to test how these tools could help decision makers understand how trending issues affect residents’ decisions to go to the ballot box. To find out, we designed a two-step research project with the goal of using social media as a key part of the scientific method to test our hypothesis.  

Our first series of data was collected via social media by querying key terms related to political issues — our hypothesized key issues influencing peoples’ voting behavior — in order to gather unsolicited feedback from the American people. This gave us the ability to track “signal” to uncover what is top-of-mind for Americans in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections. We pulled public data from social media and ran it through a suite of Natural Language Understanding enrichments, including sentiment and emotions. By reporting on the causes of frustration and the intensity of that frustration, we were then ready to go to step two. 

Once we collected the data via Social Connect and analyzed it using XM Discover, we then used the indicators surfaced to ask informed, relevant questions via a Qualtrics survey administered to a demographically representative panel of US adults aged 18 and over. We pulled the trending political issues gleaned from the social data — inflation, access to reproductive healthcare, student loan debt, war in Ukraine — and then asked survey respondents to rank the most important issue in their decision to vote. 

Early results from our research show that respondents overwhelmingly ranked inflation and cost of living as the issues driving them to the polls, due to their frustration and anger at the direct impact of their dollar being stretched thinner. Using this insight, candidates and elected officials can focus their talking points on the issues that are most salient for constituents, such as food and gas prices rather than, for example, the war in Ukraine. And instead of relying on traditional polling methods, which often have very low response rates, poor demographic representation and ask a lot of residents’ time, this social listening approach enables us to tap into what voters are already saying. We can then ask relevant and targeted questions to drive solutions.  

This type of always-on, programmatic way of assessing issues that matter most to communities can optimize how leaders govern, beyond traditional moment-in-time, one-size-fits-all surveys. With better, multi-channel listening agencies can test their own hypotheses about issues affecting residents, mobilize action based on real feedback to make effective use of government resources and ensure they are pulling the right levers to move the needle for their communities.  

Residents are telling you how they feel on social media. With the world’s most advanced conversational analytics, now there’s a smarter way to listen. Learn more here.

Dr. Sydney Heimbrock is Chief Industry Advisor for Government at Qualtrics, where she uses her global experience transforming governments through investments in workforce development and policy reform to help federal, state and local government organizations design experiences that build public trust.

Dr. Jenna Milani is Head of Government Research at Qualtrics, helping governments globally build public trust and improve outcomes for residents and employees through evidence-based research. Prior to joining Qualtrics, Jenna worked in healthcare innovation and digital transformation. Jenna holds a doctorate in social science from the University of Oxford.

Nicole Martin is a Product Scientist at Qualtrics, spearheading innovative solutions across products and multiple verticals. Nicole holds a Masters of Public Health in Epidemiology from The George Washington University.

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