Who needs Nate Silver? A study says Twitter can predict elections

The social media site may one day usurp the King of Nerds

Nate Silver
(Image credit: Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis)

Last year, statistician (and recent ESPN hire) Nate Silver correctly picked the winner of every state in the 2012 presidential election, earning the enmity of Politico writers and conservatives alike.

But those looking elsewhere for political prognostications can take heart: It appears that Twitter could hold the key to predicting election winners. A new study by researchers at Indiana University found that a candidate was more likely to win if the candidate was mentioned more often on Twitter than his or her opponent.

It was irrelevant if the tweets were negative or positive. It didn't matter if a candidate was the subject of a flood of tweets or only a trickle.

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The only factor that was important was a candidate's "tweet share" — the percentage of tweets in a congressional district that are about each candidate.

Fabio Rojas, one of the authors of the study, explained why in The Washington Post:

We believe that Twitter and other social media reflect the underlying trend in a political race that goes beyond a district’s fundamental geographic and demographic composition. If people must talk about you, even in negative ways, it is a signal that a candidate is on the verge of victory. The attention given to winners creates a situation in which all publicity is good publicity. [The Washington Post]

How effective is Twitter at picking winners? The researchers' data correctly predicted 404 out of 406 House races.

Rojas insisted that his Twitter model for predicting elections isn't just a novelty.

He noted that it could be a boon for poorly funded candidates who can't afford to conduct extensive polling, claiming that an analysis of the data can be done by "anyone with programming skills" who "can write a program that will harvest tweets, sort them for content and analyze the results."

This hardly means the end of traditional polling. As Alex Roarty of the National Journal argued, "Professional polling isn't likely to disappear from politics any time soon," mainly because "it's used for more than just the horse race — campaigns test a variety of things with polls, including their message."

For the rest of us, however, Twitter could provide insight into races that the national media doesn't find flashy enough to cover, or in remote districts that never get polled. Rojas theorized that one day an app could automatically sort tweets by congressional district and give you real-time election predictions on your phone.

"Once you start up software for collecting tweets, it's very cheap," Rojas told the National Journal. "It took one of my Ph.D. students a couple of weeks to set it up."

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