'Celebrate' vs. 'dangerous': How campaigns are talking about Supreme Court abortion decision

·6 min read

As news broke on Friday that the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade, the topic immediately dominated the rhetoric emerging from congressional campaigns.

That makes it item No. 1 for today's installment of USA TODAY’s Red Words, Blue Words, where we use text analysis tools to dissect the verbiage in Facebook and Twitter posts from more than 1,500 Senate and House campaigns.

The week’s top themes

Nearly 500 congressional campaigns posted about abortion this week, with Democrats posting 50% more often on the topic than Republicans.

When talking about abortion, phrases and hashtags used heavily by Republicans and not Democrats included "innocent," "praise" and "celebrate."

More apt to be used by Democrats and not Republicans in abortion-related posts were phrases such as "dangerous," "protect abortion," and "filibuster" — the latter a reference to the Senate procedure that has thwarted Democrats from moving their agenda even though they control the chamber.

Filibuster: Biden backs change to rules to codify abortion and privacy rights into law

Another way to look at the difference between Republican and Democratic rhetoric is to see which phrases have gained usage the fastest on each side recently. Here are the recent trends through June 28:

The latest snapshot covered just a little under seven days, compared with a full-week baseline of June 15-22.

Unsurprisingly, mentions of “Supreme Court” rose dramatically among both Democratic and Republican candidates in the period ending Tuesday versus the week before. Most other trending phrases were also associated with the court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson, which eliminated nearly 50 years of precedent establishing a constitutional right to abortion.

Where the parties differed in their trending terms highlights the distinct fundamental values that each side sees at stake.

The biggest increases in usage by Democratic campaigns included words and phrases such as "pro choice," "reproductive" and "protect." Rising Republican campaign words were "pro life," "unborn" and "babies."

The language of Democratic campaigns also featured a desired strategy for the year ahead. Trending phrases captured their desire to “codify Roe” and “end the filibuster,” as in a tweet from Cheri Beasley, a Democrat who won her Senate primary in North Carolina this week: “As your Senator, I will not hesitate to be the 51st vote to end the filibuster and codify Roe nationwide.”

The moment was the second wave of interest in the abortion topic among candidates from both parties following an earlier burst in early May, when a draft of the court's opinion was leaked.

The renewed attention has displaced other topics that have been central to midterms campaigns this cycle. On the Democratic side, the discussion of gun legislation that was driven by back-to-back mass shootings in New York and Texas has taken a backseat. And Republicans have, for now, let up on the themes of inflation and the economy.

Does social media engagement = excitement for candidates?

With the abortion ruling consuming the public discussion, it would be easy to overlook the outcomes of congressional primaries and runoffs held in seven states this week. What role has social media played in deciding winners this primary season?

Campaigns aren’t won on social media alone, political scientists and campaign strategists told USA TODAY, but candidates care a lot about how much attention their social media accounts are getting.

“We’ve gained TREMENDOUS ground and social media reflects that,” boasted Jackson Lahmeyer, a Republican candidate challenging Sen. James Lankford in Oklahoma, recently in a tweet, pointing out his number of followers on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TruthSocial. On all platforms but Facebook, Lahmeyer led Lankford in followers. Lahmeyer lost the primary this week.

One social media metric is engagement, a measure of how many times users comment on, “like” or share a candidate’s posts. Based on some early results — including those from this week — the number may sometimes serve as a meaningful barometer of how well a campaign is doing.

Election 2022: Primary election results

In a majority of the 23 contested U.S. Senate primaries and runoffs analyzed by USA TODAY in 16 states this election season, higher social media engagement generally translated to a bigger share of votes cast.

For example, Pennsylvania Lt. Governor and Senate candidate John Fetterman had nearly 1.5 times the average engagement as his nearest competitor in the eight weeks before the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania and won by more than twice as many votes. Herschel Walker in Georgia left his Republican primary challengers far behind in both vote share and social media engagement.

And this week, Joseph O'Dea won the Republican Senate primary in Colorado after outpacing his rival Ron Hanks on engagement.

But engagement is far from a consistent measure of viability, and it was a better predictor of winners in Democratic primaries than in GOP contests.

There was a positive correlation in eight out of nine Democratic primaries in USA TODAY's analysis versus less than half -- six out of 14 -- Republican primaries.

Republican senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and John Boozman of Arkansas drew much lower engagement than their challengers but won by substantial margins, likely due to Grassley’s and Boozman’s longtime incumbent status and popularity with traditional voters outside social media.

Adam Laxalt, a candidate backed by Donald Trump, won the Republican primary in Nevada even though opponent Sam Brown’s social media engagement numbers were much higher.

Carla Sands and Kathy Barnette won the engagement battle in the Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary, but Mehmet Oz won the election.

To Joe Ste.Marie, senior director of product at the progressive digital consulting firm Bully Pulpit Interactive, Pennsylvania is a case study in how social media engagement can mean a message is resonating — but not necessarily with the right voters.

On the Republican side, Ste.Marie said by email, Kathy Barnette "translated a surge of online engagement into votes at the polls" after polling at less than 10% as of March or April. She lost but landed 25% of the vote.

The takeaway? Despite a surge in social media engagement from the underdog, online traction didn’t translate to enough votes.

“Stronger engagement often means that your message resonates, but doesn’t effectively persuade voters,” said Ste.Marie. “There’s a fundamental difference between engagement and persuasion — and you need to be able to measure both.”

Mike Madrid, a GOP consultant who watches campaigns’ performance online closely, says social media is “becoming a better metric every election cycle.” But he emphasized that it still has several limitations, including the fact that “bot” accounts can artificially inflate engagement metrics by interacting with social media accounts.

“It’s an imperfect data point for a few reasons,” said Madrid, “mainly because the electorate still doesn’t match the world online.”

Michael Bossetta, a political science professor at Lund University in Sweden, says engagement is “absolutely not a surefire predictor of elections.” Few users follow politicians’ accounts, Bossetta said, and fewer still interact with a campaign’s posts. And, he said: “Not everyone who leaves an emoji on a politician’s post shows up to vote.”

“In the end, there's too much we don't know about what these metrics mean, and the key factor that candidates can boost or advertise to increase engagement numbers really muddles the picture,” said Bossetta. “So the short answer is that these engagement metrics are like reading tea leaves.”

How do Republicans and Democrats compare for social media engagement? During primary season, at least, House Republican candidates have outpaced Democratic campaigns fairly consistently. This past week massively altered that trend.

What that means for general election matchups remains to be seen.

Aleszu Bajak is a data reporter on USA TODAY’s national investigative team. He can be reached at abajak@usatoday.com, @aleszubajak or by phone or Signal at (646) 543-3017.

Veronica Bravo and Javier Zarracina contributed to this report.

USA TODAY is tracking Facebook and Twitter posts of more than 1,500 congressional campaigns using data from KnowWho, which keeps lists of elected officials. Some campaigns feeds are no longer active. Rising phrases are based on top percentage point gains in share of all phrases posted by candidates in the period ending June 28 versus a week earlier. In some cases, duplicate phrasing and terms coming from one account are removed from the analysis. USA TODAY also used a method known as TF-IDF to surface words used by candidates of one party and not the other. Social media engagement is the average number of "likes," shares and other interactions per post in the eight weeks leading up to each primary.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Abortion rights' vs. 'life': Election campaigns post on Roe reversal