Study: Donald Trump underperformed among active internet users

A new study published in PLOS One indicates that Donald Trump performed worse than previous GOP presidential candidates among those who frequently use the internet.

“Given the amount of discussion surrounding the use of the internet around the 2016 election (e.g., candidates’ Twitter use, Russian interference, and fake news), it seemed like a pertinent question for understanding current events,” explained Levi Boxell of Stanford University.

“It was also a natural follow up to our previous study examining the role of the internet and social media on political polarization.”

The researchers analyzed data from face-to-face surveys conducted from 1996 to 2016 as part of the American National Election Studies. The nationally-representative studies ask various demographic and political questions, and also includes questions about internet use.

Boxell and his colleagues found that Trump outperformed previous Republican presidential candidates among those who were least active online.

“This essentially means that Trump did worse among internet users than Romney did and, in contrast, did better among non-internet users. This questions to some extent the popular discourse surrounding the importance of the internet for the 2016 election,” Boxell told PsyPost.

“Of course, this doesn’t exclude the internet having any role in the outcome. Specifically, there are three assumptions needed to conclude that the internet did not advantage Trump in the 2016 election: ‘(i) the internet affects elections only by changing the partisan vote share among those active on the internet, (ii) the effects of the internet on voting behavior are identical across individuals, and (iii) no other time-varying factors affected the difference in Republican vote share between internet-active and internet-inactive groups.'”

“Further research still needs to understand the extent to which these assumptions may have been violated in the 2016 election,” Boxell added. “For example, to what extent did Twitter discourse shape traditional media coverage? And, would internet users have voted differentially against Trump regardless of the internet?”

“Overall, I think our paper is consistent with other findings that the role of the internet and social media may have been overplayed in the 2016 election. (See here for example.) To the extent that the 2016 election outcome and political polarization are related, I think more attention should focus on potential other factors, such as structural economic changes (e.g., economic inequality and foreign trade shocks), traditional media, and demographic change.”

The study, “A note on internet use and the 2016 U.S. presidential election outcome“, was authored by Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow, and Jesse M. Shapiro.