The words they tweet: The messaging behind federal politicians in 2020

The messaging behind federal politicians in 2020

By Josh Ellerbrock -

LIMA — Sen. Rob Portman sure likes to talk about “Ohio.” Sen. Sherrod Brown seems to be always focusing on “workers,” and Rep. Jim Jordan really likes to mention the “president.”

Not convinced? Just ask Twitter.

The Lima News, partnering with the Data II Equity project, scraped and analyzed the Twitter feeds of the region’s federal representatives to get a data-backed understanding of what they’ve been talking about over the last year.

The results only confirm a well-known trend. If politicians want to get ahead, the best way is to be controversial.

The politics of messaging

To analyze word choice, the overall methodology was relatively simple. Using the programming language R, data scientist Dr. Marin Harbur — who heads up the Data II Equity project — pulled 3,200 tweets from Rep. Bob Latta, R-Bowling Green; Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana; Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, to create a data set of tweets spanning from mid-September 2019 to today.

Only “organic” tweets, or those originating from each account, were used for the analysis. Additional data on retweets and favorites was also recorded to gauge social engagement.

The goal was to find out: What were the big topics that each member of Congress liked to revisit? What drove engagement? And what were some of the larger patterns?

Dr. Jennifer Walton, communication and media studies professor at Ohio Northern University, noted a few trends.

“Latta and Portman have a more thoughtful approach. They’re not trying to stir the pot with their tweets, and that’s all that Jordan and Brown are trying to do,” Walton said. “They’re trying to provoke, to rally their base and anger their opponents. When you hear both of them talk, that’s what they do. That’s kind of their brand, and they’re not boring.”

Walton noted the discrepancy between the two pairs of representatives largely relies on the type of argument each is looking to make. In general, Jordan and Brown are largely relying on emotional arguments to get reactions, while Latta and Portman lean on logical calls to action.

Such trends are reflected in the lists of each representative’s top-used words. Both Portman and Latta often talk about Ohio and the particular bills or acts that they are pushing forward in each chamber. Brown’s and Jordan’s word choices, however, are more incendiary. Both “president” and “Trump” top the lists of most-used words for the two, as they either for espouse for Jordan support or for Brown disgust for Donald Trump, who often provoked controversies with his own inflammatory language.

Jordan also spent a lot of his time on Twitter making arguments against his opponents. “Democrats,” “Biden” and “left” were all frequently used words for the congressman, which were often paired with “can’t,” “won’t” or “don’t.”

In contrast, Portman stood out for being the most positive of the four by using a largely positive set of words including “bipartisan,” “ensure,” “support” and “continue.”

The positive approach, however, has its drawbacks. Both Brown and Jordan have been able to grow their audiences and return much higher engagement levels by being more focused on the national conversation.

Jordan, especially, is an outlier for his overall reach. While his district population is 750,000, his total Twitter audience is 1.8 million. While “Ohio” was a frequent topic for the other three members of Congress, Jordan barely even mentions the state in his consistent set of talking points.

Changes in word choice

In the run-up to the election and the months following, each of the four changed messaging to encourage more votes for their parties. A subsequent data set consisting of tweets from the last six months were analyzed in more detail to better understand the shift.

Again, the most controversial and argumentative tweets during this time got the most play from each Twitter audience. Jordan especially made large inroads with his audience by painting Democrats as cultural enemies of the country. Tweets featuring “cancel,” “election” and “integrity” all became consistent messages for Jordan, and any tweets related to the “left,” its alleged hypocrisy around COVID-19 restrictions and the party’s malfeasance against “Trump” exploded in popularity.

Relatedly, Brown also got some great engagement from specifically targeting Republican senators, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the former POTUS, Trump.

Even Portman’s and Latta’s most popular tweets are also the most adversarial ones during this time period. In the run-up to the election, their audiences were more highly engaged with strongly-worded statements vilifying China for its role in the pandemic and trade war. Even so, the two noticeably did not rely on negative messages as their main focus throughout the election.

Walton said such findings reflect much of the research done on the efficacy of negative ads in politics when trying to increase election outcomes.

“Everybody says they hate negative ads, but negative ads are what work,” Walton said. “It’s too bad when you see the engagement and level of negativity, but when you tie that back with election messaging, it kind of all makes sense.”

That’s the value of analyzing the words people you, Harbur said.

“With data mining and data sites, you have the ability to predict outcomes or associate outcomes much more powerfully than in the past,” Harbur said. “You’re able to look at data about our community and understand how that may contribute to some of the challenges that we face.”

The words used certainly weren’t chosen by accident, Walton said.

“So much is tailored to picking the right words at the right time for the right audience,” Walton said. “You can tell that there’s been research done on what the base cares about.”


Additional frequently-used words during/after election for each Congressman:

Rep. Jim Jordan

• Cancel

• COVID-19

• Hunter

• Integrity

• Joe

• Media

• They’re

Rep. Bob Latta

• Businesses

• Care

• Marcia

• Pandemic


• Program

• Vote

• Women

• Workers

Sen. Rob Portman

• Care

• Congress

• Pass

• Relief

• Time

Sen. Sherrod Brown

• Court

• COVID-19

• McConnell

• Millions

• Obwh2020

• Vote

• Women


Those interested in the Data II Equity project and other local data resources can find more information at
The messaging behind federal politicians in 2020

By Josh Ellerbrock

Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.

Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.

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