Who’s winning the social media game in Kentucky’s gubernatorial election?

By Emily Laytham

Contributing Writer

As Kentucky’s gubernatorial candidates carefully crisscross the state in search of votes, another strategic battle is being waged in cyberspace.

The victor of that battle depends on the site you visit.

Various social media platforms tell a different story on who has won the hearts – and, more important, the votes – of Kentucky’s electorate.

On Facebook, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s campaign page has received over 110,000 “likes” and 109,000 “follows.” Over the past two weeks, his posts received an average of 885.4 positive reactions (defined as a “like” or “love” response) and 173.2 comments.

In comparison, Democratic challenger Andy Beshear’s campaign page has just 20,000 likes and follows, with an average of 321.4 positive reactions and 35.3 comments on each post over the past two weeks.

Although his following is smaller than Bevin’s, Beshear is more prolific on social media. During the two weeks of social media activity analyzed by The State Journal, Beshear made 46 posts to Facebook, while Bevin made only 18. Beshear also posted significantly more to Twitter and Instagram during that period, while Bevin made more YouTube posts – three videos to Beshear’s one.

According to University of Louisville professor Jason Gainous, whose specialization in information technology and public opinion contributed to his 2013 book “Tweeting to Power: The Social Media Revolution in American Politics,” Beshear’s higher output isn’t surprising.

Challengers “are not afforded the same incumbency advantages …, so they are going to take advantage of every mechanism at their disposal to try to narrow that advantage. They may be more encouraged to use social media to do so,” Gainous said.

The candidates’ tones on social media also affect engagement. Over the past two weeks, Beshear most frequently mentioned teachers’ rights and Bevin’s perceived failings, two issues that Gainous identified as wedge issues for this election.

“Time and time again, Matt Bevin has insulted and belittled KY’s teachers,” Beshear tweeted on Sep. 4

while publicizing his recent “Stop the Bullying, Raise the Pay” campaign aimed at statewide pay increases for teachers.

Several of Beshear’s posts have the same refrain: Bevin has either “attacked” or “failed” a subset of Kentucky’s population.

Bevin only referenced Beshear once over the past two weeks, during a brief Twitter feud over a Kentucky Supreme Court ruling on Beshear’s use of outside attorneys in litigation against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

During the analysis period, Bevin posted most frequently about his ties to President Donald Trump and the first family. A recent Bevin rally attended by Donald Trump Jr. received three separate posts on Facebook, while other apparently unrelated posts, such as one foreshadowing “an exciting announcement,” are often paired with images of Bevin and Trump together.

The previewed announcement turned out to be a new campaign ad. Though the ad did not mention Trump outwardly, it did feature another popular still of Bevin beside him.

Beshear made no mention of Trump during the period.

The strategies reflect what is vital to both candidates in this election: turnout. For Bevin, turnout among strong Trump supporters is vital; for Beshear, capturing the teacher vote is paramount, according to Gainous.

Gainous said Beshear has little to gain in invoking the president’s name — and a lot to lose.

“Most Democrats in this state who don’t like Trump equally don’t like Bevin,” said Gainous, who referred to Bevin’s politicking as “Trump-like.” “So, there’s no benefit to Beshear in mentioning Trump … . If you go negative on Bevin, you get the same (result) without running the risk of mobilizing the Trump base.”

Marjan Charness, digital director for the Beshear and Coleman campaign, said Beshear uses social media “to speak directly to Kentuckians about his positive vision to make their lives better by expanding access to affordable health care, improving public education and creating good-paying jobs.”

“On the other hand,” Charness said, “Matt Bevin uses social media to post erratic and unhinged videos and bully and block anyone who disagrees with him — especially Kentucky teachers.”

Charness was referencing Bevin’s tendency to block users who post negative comments to his social media feeds. In 2017, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that Bevin is constitutionally able to block individuals from his page despite serving as an elected official. That decision is currently being appealed by the ACLU of Kentucky.

The Bevin campaign did not immediately respond for comment.

On Twitter, Beshear’s campaign account performs slightly better than his opponent’s in positive engagement. In the past two weeks, Beshear received an average of 282 likes per tweet, compared to Bevin’s average of 222 likes.

Meanwhile, Bevin’s campaign account has proven immensely successful at getting people talking, with an average of 520 replies per tweet, compared to Beshear’s average of 7.8 replies.

Replies are difficult to qualify, as they include a myriad of sentiments, from overwhelmingly positive reactions to incredibly negative ones. But Twitter-savvy standards of gauging mass sentiment do exist: For example, the concept of a “ratioed” post, or one that has received more replies than likes. A ratioed post suggests that an audience’s positive reaction to a post — which might elicit a passive like — is outweighed by radically negative responses that push users to condemn the post with a time-consuming reply.

Bevin was ratioed once during the two-week period of analysis. A video of the governor likening Beshear to “crazy Bernie,” a derogatory reference to Democratic Vermont Senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, received 1,600 likes and 5,500 replies on Twitter after it was posted last week.

That may look bad for Bevin, but it does not accurately reflect the electorate’s opinions, according to Gainous.

“On (Bevin’s) Twitter, you have a totally disproportionate representation of his support. It’s the naysayers who are all over it,” Gainous said.

On Facebook, the same video post received moderate support with 1,600 positive reactions and 519 comments.

Facebook is tailored to group activity and is less likely to have a national scope, according to Gainous. For that reason, its picture of support may be more balanced and a more accurate representation of the opinions of Kentucky voters.

That’s good news for Bevin, whose Facebook presence was significantly more positive than Beshear’s during the period of analysis.

But Gainous said a different angle of analysis might place Beshear on top of the social media game.

“Those congressional candidates who post hyperlinks to news stories, create hashtags and groups, retweet known partisans within their party … were also the candidates who were more likely to win,” Gainous said, referencing research conducted for his 2013 book.

When applied to Kentucky’s gubernatorial race, that information looks good for Beshear, who retweeted multiple stories and posted several news clips during the period of analysis. (Bevin posted no videos sourced from the news and did not retweet any post during the two weeks, although he did hyperlink a Fox News story to congratulate Trump on a “billion-dollar” trade deal with Japan.)

Contrary answers on social media success are to be expected, according to Gainous. Although it is interesting to note how one candidate performs from post to post, the reality is that social media is not reality.

“There are a lot of studies out there that look at trying to use social media in general as a substitute for polling,” Gainous said. “The advantage of it is that you can get a massive sample. That said, the disadvantage is that there’s selection bias. It’s not like it’s a random sample.”

Emily Laytham, a University of Kentucky journalism major, is covering the 2019 gubernatorial race for The Middlesboro Daily News and other Kentucky newspapers.