By the Numbers: How Presidential Candidates Stack Up on Social Media

And why Twitter, Facebook and Instagram followers aren’t everything

The 2016 presidential race is inherently different from the 2012 contest, and not just because there's no incumbent.

Early campaigning on social media has never been so intense, with candidates turning to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to engage supporters who are getting unprecedented access to White House hopefuls. "Now, candidates have a presence on a whole breadth of platforms with custom content to target that audience, and they are producing unprecedented levels of content—the sheer volume is impressive," said Marie Ewald Danzig, head of creative and delivery at Blue State Digital, which led digital efforts for the Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012.

Candidates are using social media to engage supporters.

But it's not just about the number of followers a candidate has—it's how he or she employs social. "I think the way to measure this is whether [the candidates] are punching above or below their weight, not the aggregate number of people," explained Jordan Lieberman, president of CampaignGrid, which works with Republican candidates.

Lieberman noted that while front-runner Donald Trump has a potent social following (4.1 million on Twitter, 3.6 million on Facebook), many "are really just trying to watch a demolition derby—it's the entertainment value." But, he added, in the case of Ben Carson, whose numbers in the polls and on social media have steadily grown, his followers could actually help him win.

For the Democrats, said Danzig, "it's more important for the progressive candidates [like Bernie Sanders] that are trying to get more people involved in the political process by voting, volunteering, sharing messages—that's what really drives innovation on social media."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 14 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.