How Senators use Twitter to communicate legislative activity

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By Annelise Russell

Congress has experienced much change over the last 50 years, including increased party polarization, committee system reforms, and the rise of social media. The way members communicate with their constituents and the public at large has evolved as well, with Twitter becoming the newest tool for congressional communication. But despite these changes, some things remain the same.

Lawmakers still make strategic choices to prioritize policy, communicate with constituents, and advertise their political brand in pursuit of what David Mayhew seminally described as the ultimate goal: re-election. But not every member is turning to Twitter to pursue that goal in the same fashion.  Each lawmaker has to decide where it is most effective to put his or her resources, and that decision in turn affects how politicians communicate their goals and legislative activities.

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Communicating via new media platforms like Twitter became a normalized routine for all senators in 2013, offering a window into politicians’ decision making. More importantly, that window provides new insight into how politicians prioritize their common – but not constant – legislative activities. Table 1 provides examples of the three major categories of legislative activity tweeting.

The majority of senators, for example, decide to prioritize position-taking in their daily communications with journalists and constituents.  That choice comes with a trade-off, though; talking about their policy priorities leaves senators with less time for credit claiming. Even on Twitter, where politicians often signal multiple goals at once (“healthcare costs for Texas” or “constituent calls on the Keystone pipeline”), policy positions and issue priorities are the primary information senators share with journalists and constituents. This finding sheds light on how senators view their roles as representatives and the activities they see as necessary to secure their positions.

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Even though senators reference each of these activities on Twitter, there are systematic differences in the activities senators choose to prioritize. A quick look at the 10 senators who use Twitter the most — outside of election years — to promote each activity shows some interesting patterns.  Democrats tend to be some of the most prolific position takers on Twitter, but Republicans are easily the most likely to advertise compared to Democrats.  Credit claiming is dominated by senators from more rural states and rank-and-file members.  Party leaders spend more time communicating position-taking on Twitter.

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While studies by Mayhew, Fiorina and Fenno  outline the basic goals and activities of congressmen, Twitter enhances that image by highlighting the systematic choices between advertising, credit claiming and position taking. And in an era of smaller congressional staffs and fewer resources, how a senator chooses to spend his time has important implications for re-election and representation. Twitter is now a standard means for  congressional communication and politicians now use it  to communicate their agenda outside the confines of the campaign season. How a senator juggles Mayhew’s three legislative activities — position taking, credit claiming, and advertising — has important implications for the type of representation constituents should expect from their elected officials.

Annelise Russell is an assistant professor of political science at University of Kentucky.