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Can any candidate top @realDonaldTrump?

"I watched lightweight Senator Marco Rubio, who is all talk and no action, defend his WEAK position on illegal immigration. Pathetic!" Donald Trump recently told 4 million people. Or, at least @realDonaldTrump did.

The age of Twitter has amplified presidential hopefuls' public outreach efforts to an incredible degree. It's also given them a low-cost method of disseminating their messages and opened them up to unfettered abuse from nearly anonymous critics.

"The role of social media has allowed [Trump] to kind of bypass traditional media," Zac Moffatt recently told CNBC's "Squawk Box." "Donald Trump has really figured out a way to drive his message through social media without always having to go on and do interviews in person." Moffatt directed the digital operation for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign and has since founded Targeted Victory, a consulting firm focused on online tactics.

The Big Crunch took a look at the habits of the Republican presidential candidates to see who tweets, who retweets and who gets the most love on one of the world's biggest social media sites/online popularity contests. We collected data over eight days in a typical, nondebate week this fall. We weighted the number of retweets and favorites candidates received along with the number of replies they sent to create an engagement index.

A caveat: Like many activities that involve being loud, Trump dominates GOP Twitter. The New York Times recently detailed Trump's tweeting habits and a snapshot of his audience's engagement. The Big Crunch did not categorize Trump with the other candidates. He is his own category.

Trump's prolific tweeting so outweighs his opponents' that it's hardly fair comparing them. @realDonaldTrump has five times as many Twitter followers as his next competitor, @tedcruz. And Trump has been on the social media site more than seven years promoting his reality shows and personal brand. Only @marcorubio, one of the youngest candidates, has been on Twitter close to that long.

Engagers

The secret to an engaging Twitter account isn't easy, but @RealBenCarson and @tedcruz may have found the secret sauce. They had the highest engagement with their followers during our sample period, both over 50 on a scale indexed to 100. Carson led in engagement, thanks largely to his "Yes, #IamaChristian" update following the mass shooting in Oregon.


With 37 status updates in our sample, Carson isn't the most prolific user of social media. But the days we studied coincided with his rise in the polls to challenge Trump, which would also increase his engagement.

Cruz, on the other hand, sent the most status updates during the period we studied. Cruz uses his Twitter account to remind his followers of his views and to publicize recent media mentions, from rallying his campaign supporters to Buzzfeed's post about "The Princess Bride."

Shouting into the dark

Cruz may have been the most active on Twitter during our period studied (save, of course, for Trump) but @LindseyGrahamSC came in a close second. Graham's Twitter feed leans toward the wonky, showcasing his foreign policy credentials and promoting the candidate's media exposure.

Trouble is, there's not many people listening. Graham has only 28,000 followers. Of Republican candidates, only James Gilmore has fewer. (James who?) But Graham has stepped up his Twitter game since declaring his candidacy. With 3,500 tweets total, he has averaged around 20 tweets a week, a fraction of the 80 status updates he sent during our study period.

Rand Paul's @RandPaul is another candidate who could improve his Twitter engagement. The senator from Kentucky, whose 4.7 percent in the polls got him onto the main stage for the recent CNN debate, has nearly 700,000 followers, placing him fourth among the candidates. But his average retweets rank him eighth.

Some of Paul's tweets come from Sprout Social, a software for managing social media accounts. Many others are Twitter ads for campaign merchandise.

Typical users

Some candidates seem to have found a sweet spot: not too many tweets into the ether but strategically personal enough to engage with their supporters.

The @marcorubio account is most active in replying to supporters. Twitter replies are rare from presidential candidates (who often receive harsh if not abusive derision from critics). Half of Rubio's tweets during our study period were in reply to other users, the highest rate.

Rubio's tweets come from a variety of sources — Sprout Social, iPhone and TweetDeck — so it's unclear if the candidate handles the account himself or if it's run by communication staff. The campaign did not respond to messages requesting comment.

Twitter isn't the only technology politicians use to communicate with voters and constituents. As governor of Florida, Jeb Bush received and responded directly to constituents emailing him. The campaign is putting out a book of those emails at the end of October, though he had previously received criticism for being slow in releasing the records.


On the campaign trail, Bush's Twitter feed is partly his and partly his staff, a spokesman said. Bush's @JebBush sent 70 tweets in the time we looked at, two of which were replies to other Twitter users. That's a far faster rate than Bush has tweeted in the five years he's had the social network, over which he's averaged about 400 tweets a year, the least of the 15 candidates.

Also-tweeted

You may have heard of also-rans — politicians who, years after unremarkable defeats are remembered in a trivia question akin to "Who also ran that year?" Here we have those who likely also-tweeted in 2015.

Rick Santorum's @RickSantorum and @BobbyJindal did not garner enough support to qualify for the main-stage debate at the Reagan Library, and their Twitter performances, too, are limited. Each earn an average of around 30 favorites for each tweet they send, ranking them 11th and 12th. Jindal follows 21,000 people and is followed by around 220,000, giving him one of the highest followees-to-followers ratio of the bunch. Interestingly, he's never favorited someone else's tweet.

Carly Fiorina did make the debate and earned some of the loudest praise for her response to Trump's insults about her appearance. It's possible that her limited rate of only 28 tweets during the period kept @CarlyFiorina from rising to the next level of social engagement.

It's probably a bad idea to put too much stock in 140-character presidential decrees, but consider that online advertising is predicted to reach $1 billion this cycle, according to data from Reuters. A portion of that will be spent promoting tweets to get them in the faces of otherwise nonpolitical users.