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Twitter as Crystal Ball: Predicting Last Night's NYC Primary Surprises

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, September 16 2009

New York City's Democratic primary contests yesterday saw a few upsets and a handful of otherwise surprising results. Given that just about every major political candidate in every major race in the city had been sending out updates through Twitter and amassing fans on Facebook, it seemed like a fun idea to take a look at this question: how well some of those social media metrics correlate with how these races played out when push finally came to votes yesterday? We collected all the numbers. We pushed a bunch of buttons in Excel. And while that's an hour and a half we'll never get back, the fact of the matter is that when you take the measure of how much support candidates were able to build on social networks, you might have a spotted a few clues to help you predict the outcomes of some of the more contested races.

(Apply all the necessary caveats here: this is almost entirely anecdotal, turnout in NYC was a likely in the mid-teens, social media support needn't translate into votes right away, yadda yadda. This is half in jest and wholly an experiment in applying a critical eye to what the political payoff can be for time spent building online support.)

In the New York City Public Advocate race, city councilmember Bill DiBlasio scored something of a surprise win, 33% to 31%, over former two-term Public Advocate Mark Green. (It's only a temporary "win." Since neither candidate broke the 40% mark, under city law the race goes into a run off.) While Green's name recognition is strong in the city, given his past service to the city in the same position he was gunning for, this time around his campaign never seemed to build up steam -- which is borne out by the social media numbers at play. DiBlasio collected 3,265 followers, combining his Twitter and Facebook numbers, to Green's far fewer 445. This despite the fact that Green made a go at using his Twitter stream creatively, tweeting out one hundred "New Ideas for a Better City."

The Manhattan District Attorney race had been contentious, dramatic, and up for grabs. It looked for a time like Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder might emerge victorious over Cyrus Vance, despite the fact that Vance was the heir apparent to the influential sitting DA Robert Morgenthau. But Vance fairly trounced Snyder last night, 44% to 30%. A somewhat unforeseen story, but one nonetheless foretold by their respective Facebook and Twitter tallies. Vance had 1,582 admirers and followers to Snyder's 881. Attorney Richard Aborn came in third in both votes and online allies, with 26% of the vote and 720 followers and fans.

And in the Comptroller race, Queens councilmember John Liu pulled out 38% of the vote over Brooklyn councilmember David Yassky's 31%. (A result that, again, calls for a run-off at the to take place at the end of the month.) Surprising? Perhaps. But not if you're keeping tabs on how popular Liu and Yassky were doing online. Liu's Twitter-plus-Facebook tally amounted to 1,159 followers and fans, while Yassky pulled in with somewhat fewer, at 364 admirers and followers.

Alas, our crystal ball cracks apart completely when it comes to the also-rans in these most contested races. In the Comptroller's race, David Weprin managed to amass almost as many followers as the top two candidates in the race (1,858 to Liu and Yassky's combined 2,073). But he won a much smaller share of the vote, with just 11%. And in the Public Advocate contest, Queens councilmember Eric Goia racked up more than five times the friends and followers as the second place finisher Green -- but he managed to only place a disappointing far third.