Home 2021 Elections FWIW Virginia: How Voters Are Engaging With the #VAGov Race Online

FWIW Virginia: How Voters Are Engaging With the #VAGov Race Online

The "data mirrors the 2020 election and the general bent of Facebook’s algorithm, where incendiary conservative content drives anger + engagement."


From FWIW Virginia:

How voters are engaging with the #VAGov race online

Quantifying the online conversation about McAuliffe, Youngkin on Facebook

Jul 22 Comment Share

Welcome to FWIW Virginia, where we analyze digital spending trends on both sides of the aisle in the 2021 Virginia statewide and legislative elections. Each week, we look at how campaigns are investing in digital engagement and the online tactics they use to reach voters across the Commonwealth. Was this email forwarded to you? Click here to subscribe. 

Although millions are spent by political campaigns every cycle on ads on Facebook and Instagram, political ads only go so far. At the end of the day, organic content dominates the bulk of users’ feeds, allowing the online narrative of a race to be shaped by pages for everything from news outlets to meme accounts.

In this week’s edition of FWIW Virginia, we dig into the data on the organic content driving the online conversation around #VAGov. But first…

2021 by the Numbers

FWIW, here are the top 10 spenders specifically targeting Facebook users in Virginia last week.

And here’s how total digital ad spending stacked up this week in Virginia’s statewide races.

Notably, Youngkin is spending on Facebook ads for the first time in over a month, spending over $28,000 in the last week boosting an ad we highlighted last week attacking Terry McAuliffe for “being friends with Trump.”

We’ve also started cumulative digital ad spending tracking across the state, including spending from candidates for statewide offices, competitive or potentially competitive Delegate races (any race under a 15 point margin in 2019), and partisan outside groups with spending specifically targeted at Virginia elections.

How voters really see it

Although we spend a lot of time looking at paid digital advertising, it can only go so far – and what other people – news outlets, influencers, and local messengers – are saying about the candidates online matters too. Understanding the narratives emerging in Virginians’ Facebook and Instagram newsfeeds is key to understanding how many voters are seeing the election.

To dig into how the Virginia gubernatorial race is playing out on social media, we used Facebook data sourced from CrowdTangle to look at the most engaged Facebook posts over the past 30 days mentioning Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin. Looking at the total user interactions (likes, shares, and comments) of the top 10 most-engaged posts mentioning Terry McAuliffe and the top 10 most-engaged posts mentioning Glenn Youngkin, recent pro-Youngkin content is driving more engagement than pro-McAuliffe content.

This data mirrors the 2020 election and the general bent of Facebook’s algorithm, where incendiary conservative content drives anger + engagement. There are some major caveats to this, however – CrowdTangle only reports engagement data, not total reach, so we don’t know exactly how many people saw each category of content, and many of these posts were generated by national pages, so this content is mostly reaching voters outside of Virginia.

Another key point – we’ve found that engagement with any posts mentioning ‘McAuliffe” or ‘Youngkin’ has been surprisingly low. Compared to hot topics like Critical Race Theory, climate change, or Jeff Bezos being blasted into space, Facebook users just aren’t as engaged in the VA Gov race yet. Clearly, when the television and radio ad onslaughts begin in the fall and campaign spending across the board increases, that will very likely change.

Posts Mentioning McAuliffe

Over the past 3 months, 5,576 posts on Facebook mentioned Terry McAuliffe, and they received 607,470 interactions. The most interactions about the former Governor came from the week of his Democratic primary victory, followed by recent conservative attacks during the second week of July.

Looking at the most-engaged Facebook posts that mention Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe in the past month, posts from conservative pages have far more interactions than posts from liberal-aligned pages. The top post mentioning McAuliffe from the past 30 days was from conservative online personality Liz Wheeler, whose July 8th episode included an attack on McAuliffe over a tweet he made about guns, along with vaccine misinformation and scaremongering over Critical Race Theory. Wheeler’s post garnered nearly 54,000 interactions and the episode has been viewed nearly 400,000 times on Facebook (Facebook makes video views public, but not post views).

The next most-engaged posts mentioning McAuliffe are from former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and a conservative meme page, which also attack the same tweet from McAuliffe suggesting that it should be easier to vote than it should be to buy a gun. Walker’s post generated 11,700 interactions and the post from the meme page “Occupy Democrats Logic” generated 12,000 interactions.

The next most engaged posts mentioning McAuliffe are from liberal pages but garnered far less engagement than conservative content. The posts from The American Independent and The Democratic Coalition amassed 4,900 and 3,400 interactions, respectively, and both posts linked back to an American Independent article about a GOP-sponsored poll showing McAuliffe with a 5 point lead.

In general, it appears that McAuliffe attracts a decent amount of national attention from being a well-known former Governor. While that has resulted in a few moderately engaging attacks from national pages, it’s unclear whether that content is really reaching Virginia voters.

Posts Mentioning Youngkin

Over the past 3 months, 4,822 posts on Facebook mentioned Glenn Youngkin, and they received 693,047 interactions. The most interactions about the GOP Gubernatorial nominee took place around the Republican nominating convention in early May.

In the past month, posts mentioning Youngkin garnered even less engagement than those mentioning McAuliffe, but some notable narratives emerge. The most-engaged post mentioning Youngkin comes from GOP State Sen. Steve Newman (SD 23), in which he attacks protections for transgender students before pivoting to asking his followers to support Youngkin in order to replace the Department of Education that created those protections (it’s a long post, you can read it here). The post has 7,800 interactions, less than some of the national posts about McAuliffe, but this content is far more localized and its engagement likely comes from actual Virginians.

Question for Youngkin: Will your Dept. of Education eliminate protections for transgender students?

Youngkin was also mentioned in posts by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and liberal online personality Brian Tyler Cohen, who both ran with the leaked recording of Youngkin telling donors that he’s hiding his real position on abortion from voters during the election. Maddow’s post had 5,300 interactions while Cohen’s had 2,800 interactions.

Rounding out Youngkin’s most-engaged mentions were two posts from Nikki Haley, who campaigned with Youngkin in mid-July as she works to maintain her national profile ahead of a 2024 presidential campaign. Haley’s posts announcing + highlighting her visit received over 6,200 engagements.

In all, Youngkin still seems to be a less nationalized figure than McAuliffe, which is to be expected given Youngkin’s political inexperience and McAuliffe’s long history in politics. Online interest in his candidacy seems to have faded a bit since his initial nomination in May.

The GOP base that Youngkin needs to turn out at near-record levels is motivated by fringe culture war issues – issues that spread like wildfire on Facebook. We’ll keep monitoring the conversation there and elsewhere over the coming weeks.


Thanks for reading this week’s FWIW Virginia! We’re so excited to be back following these critical elections in the Commonwealth. If you enjoy reading this type of content each week, we hope you’ll support our work by clicking share and tweeting out this newsletter below! As always, email us with ideas of what you’d like us to dive into next.

You can also sign up to receive our national newsletter, FWIW, here.

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