Very Few Voters Actually Read Trump’s Tweets

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President Trump’s tweets often dominate news coverage, particularly on cable news. But let’s be honest: We here at FiveThirtyEight have occasionally written about them too. What is more, well, newsworthy than the words of the chief executive of one of the world’s most powerful nations? And since politicians are known for boring, repetitive, long-winded speeches, what could be a better political platform than one that literally forbids using more than 280 characters at a time? Twitter seems good for Trump, too: As his allies often say, it gives the president a way to speak directly to the American electorate, getting around the media’s filter. Trump’s Twitter account is followed by 52 million people, not that far off from the nearly 63 million who voted for him in 2016.

But some data released this week should give Trump and his supporters pause about the power of his Twitter account in directly reaching American voters — and push the media to think carefully about its coverage of Trump’s tweets. Only 8 percent of U.S. adults say they follow Trump’s Twitter account (@realDonaldTrump), and only 4 percent say they follow his account and regularly read the president’s tweets, according to a new Gallup poll. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 250 million Americans are age 18 or older. So Trump’s Twitter followers, based on the Gallup data, are about 20 million Americans of voting age. And the real consumers of his tweets are about 10 million.

Twenty million people isn’t nothing. Neither is 10 million. It’s more people than read FiveThirtyEight most days or watch any of the network news programs. But it’s nowhere close to the 52 million followers Twitter says he has. And it’s a small share of the roughly 325 million people who live in the U.S. or even the more than 137 million people who voted in the 2016 presidential election.

Of course, the Gallup number is just one poll, but it makes for a more realistic estimate of Trump’s Twitter audience than his official follower count. Twitter estimates that it has more than 69 million total users in the U.S., but we know that many Twitter accounts, particularly those who follow celebrities like Trump, are bots or otherwise fake. Also, remember that people of all ages and people outside of the U.S. can use Twitter. So Trump’s 52 million followers surely include some American teenagers, as well as, say, Brazilian or Japanese citizens who care about his decisions. Third, Gallup’s estimate that 26 percent of American adults have Twitter accounts is fairly close to the results of a 2016 Pew Research Center poll that found 21 percent of U.S. adults were Twitter users.

In any case, here’s why this data matters: If Trump is really speaking to 10 or 20 million American adults with his tweets, then they’re not really a means of directly reaching the American electorate at large. (Gallup estimates that just 15 percent of Republicans follow Trump on Twitter, so he’s not even directly reaching much of his base.) This data argues for treating Trump’s tweets more like presidential statements to elites, the press and other fairly politically engaged people.1

Such statements may still be important. But Trump is not really getting around the media filter via Twitter if so few voters are actually seeing his messages on the platform itself.

The Gallup report makes me think that Trump’s tweets should be covered more — not less — carefully by the press. If Trump’s tweets were just appeals to his political base, one that we know is susceptible to believing falsehoods like the claim that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S., that might argue that the tweets should be taken, well, seriously but not literally. If, on the other hand, these tweets are reaching a fairly small actual audience but are heavily influencing media coverage, that would suggest the actual messages in the tweets matter more. When I covered Obama as a White House reporter for The Washington Post, I was more interested in what he told small, elite audiences (Democratic congressional leaders, for example) than what he told crowds at rallies, as he was usually more candid and described his political strategy in more detail in the former settings.

It’s worth considering whether we think of Twitter as Trump’s megaphone and bully pulpit but it’s really his inside voice — Trump’s version of the off-record meetings with influential journalists that past presidents used to shape the views of other insiders.

Other Polling Nuggets

  • A poll from the Pew Research Center found that 71 percent of Americans support direct negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear program. That includes 85 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats. About half of Americans, however, believe that North Korea’s leadership is not serious about addressing concerns about its program.
  • The Associated Press, working with Fox News, is launching an interesting new exit poll project for the 2018 midterms: AP VoteCast. Basically, the idea is to get away from the traditional in-person method of surveying voters by adding in opt-in online surveys.
  • Americans are split on whether they favor or oppose using torture to obtain information from terrorism suspects. According to a YouGov poll from this week, 32 percent are in favor, 36 percent are opposed and 32 percent are not sure. The poll also shows a partisan split, with Republicans more likely to support using torture on terrorism suspects and Democrats more likely to oppose it.
  • According to the same YouGov poll, 46 percent of Americans approve of the way Trump is handling North Korea. That’s up about 9 percentage points from last December.
  • Harris Poll conducted a survey of over 1,000 mothers aged 25-39 with infants, toddlers or preschoolers and found that 87 percent believe that maternal and child health care in the U.S. needs immediate improvement; 89 percent of the moms interviewed agreed that access to quality prenatal and child health care should be a right, not a privilege.
  • Polling nerds unite! This weekend is the annual conference of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. If you’d like to get nerdy about polling, you can follow #AAPOR on Twitter and see what your favorite pollsters are up to.
  • SurveyMonkey took a closer look this week at Trump’s improving job approval numbers. They found that the number of Americans who perceive him as someone who “can get things done” is up 10 percentage points since its low in November 2017 and is back at levels previously seen at the start of his term.
  • A poll of Jewish Israelis conducted by the University of Maryland this month found that 73 percent support Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, an additional 20 percent believe he should have waited to move the embassy in the context of a peace plan, and only 5 percent oppose it altogether. A poll conducted in August of last year by the polling firm SSRS showed much more division over the issue among Jewish Americans, with 44 percent opposing the move.
  • A Gallup poll found that even if driverless cars were common on the roads, 75 percent of Americans would opt for a human-operated car. Just over half of Americans said they would never want to use a self-driving car even if they were certified by government auto-safety regulators.
  • The Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins this week. A YouGov poll of residents of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt commissioned by Netflix showed that TV viewership increases 78 percent during Ramadan. That’s an average of three extra hours a day of watching TV shows or movies!

Trump approval rating

On Monday of this week, Trump’s approval rating hit 42.4 percent, the highest level since last May, before the firing of then-FBI Director James Comey. It had slipped slightly by the end of this week, to 42.3 percent. On May 7, about two weeks ago, Trump’s disapproval rating was below 52 percent for the first time since last May. It is now up to 52.3 percent.

Generic ballot

The Democrats are at 45.3 percent in the generic congressional ballot, their lowest standing since last June. But they remain about 6 points ahead of the Republicans, who are at 39.5 percent. Polls suggest that about 15 percent of voters are undecided on which party they will back in the midterms, and that bloc is looking increasingly important.

FiveThirtyEight

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