Tracking the invisible primary: October 2023 update

October 26, 2023

  • On all three major social media sites Trump and Biden have many more followers than anyone else in the race.
  • Trump and Biden exceed all the other candidates when we track mentions in the mainstream media.
  • Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley have about the same amount of cash on hand, and it looks like DeSantis, who has raised more money than Haley, has had to spend a lot to try and maintain his second place standing.
FILE PHOTO: Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, U.S. Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum debate at the first Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S. August 23, 2023. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo
Editor's note:

In this series, we track key election metrics for presidential candidates throughout the campaign period known as the “invisible primary.”

See regularly-updated data in our 2024 presidential primary tracker.

The list of presidential candidates included in the tracker is based on the candidates listed in AP News, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Politico’s descriptions of the 2024 field.

A few months ago, we started tracking the progress of presidential candidates in the “invisible primary,” which began in the fall of 2023 and ends in January 2024 when the first primary votes are cast. In order to see who was doing well we looked at three measures: how the candidates were doing on social media; how they were doing in the mainstream press and how they were doing when it came to raising money.

Recently we updated these three data fields and here’s what we found.

The surprising result in light of Trump’s indictments and Biden’s polling woes is that there have been no major changes in the candidates standing within the two parties. President Biden dominates the Democratic field, while former President Trump dominates the Republican field. Despite those trends, the data is still worth examining for two important questions.

  1. For the Republican side the big question is — who is likely to win the number two spot in the early contests thus potentially paving the way for a more robust challenge to Trump?
  2. And on the Democratic side the big question is — now that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West have dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination and decided to run as third party candidates, are either of them strong enough to serve as a spoiler in the general election and help defeat President Biden?

Social Media

The first chart shows how well the presidential candidates are performing on social media platforms. Tabs at the top allow one to look at the number of candidate followers on three major social media sites; X (formerly Twitter), Facebook, and Instagram. We pulled the number of candidate followers in June of 2023 and again in October 2023. The chart also calculates the degree of change during the past four months, from the date we started collecting to the latest data point collected.

On all three social media sites Trump and Biden have many more followers than anyone else in the race. For instance, on X Trump has an average of 86.9 million followers a day and Biden an average of 37.3 million a day.

On Facebook and Instagram, as on X, both Trump and Biden are far ahead of the rest of the field. On Facebook, for instance, no one, with the exception of former Vice President Mike Pence, has more than one million followers on average each day.

After Biden and Trump, the number of followers per candidate falls way off. While most candidates increased their following during the past four months, a few stand out for having the largest percentage gains. Vivek Ramaswamy, Doug Burgum and late-comer Ryan Binkley all had large increases — although their overall numbers are still very small. The most likely explanation for these jumps is that these individuals are wealthy and able to spend large amounts of money for advertising on social media sites in order to bump their numbers up to qualify for the upcoming November Republican debate.

Mainstream Media Mentions

Trump and Biden exceed all the other candidates when we track mentions in the mainstream media. Almost all the candidates received fewer mentions in October than they did in June — even Trump and Biden. Half of the candidates received fewer than ten mentions a day and some, like Marianne Williamson, received less than one mention a day. The paucity of attention paid to the invisible primary is probably due to several factors. First attention in the political space shifted to the Congress — to the possibility of a government shutdown and the drawn-out speakership race. And, perhaps most important, there is the conventional wisdom that the race is stuck in place and that a rematch between Trump and Biden is a foregone conclusion.

The Money Race

As in our other metrics, when it comes to fundraising Trump and Biden are far ahead of the rest of the field. They have raised substantial amounts of money (over $60 million for Trump and over $56 million for Biden) and they have substantial amounts of cash on hand. Also noteworthy is that two of the very rich candidates in the race, Ramaswamy and Burgum have spent substantially and have very little cash on hand — although they can both replenish this. In Ramaswamy’s case the spending seems to have gotten him a place in the third Republican debate, but the spending hasn’t worked as well for Burgum. In the Republican race Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley have about the same amount of cash on hand and it looks like DeSantis, who has raised more money than Haley, has had to spend a lot to try and maintain his second place standing. Finally, Mike Pence’s poor showing is surprising for a former Vice President of the United States and indicative of his poor showing in fundraising as well as in other areas. So far, he has not qualified for the next Republican debate.

The Early States

As we’ve written in these pages before, what can throw a front runner off track is an unexpected victory in an early state by someone who exceeds expectations. So far Biden has not drawn any significant opposition for the Democratic nomination — Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West have decided to run as independents — leaving only Marianne Williamson and an obscure three-term congressman from Minnesota, Dean Phillips (who is expected to enter the race), to run in the New Hampshire primary where President Biden (in compliance with Democratic party rules) will not be on the ballot.

That leaves the Republican primary early states as places where a surprise candidate could break out and challenge Donald Trump’s apparent lock on the nomination. Trump is consistently ahead of the field in national polls, since April of 2023 he has polled above 50%, far ahead of everyone else.

The Trump story is much the same in Iowa although he has been slightly less dominant there than he has been nationally, with polling averages since June 2023 running in the forties and only recently reaching 50%, according to FiveThirtyEight’s summary. DeSantis has been in second place since June although by the end of the summer, he had dropped from his earlier high. In third place is Nikki Haley, who, while still behind DeSantis, has risen to an average of 10% in the FiveThirtyEight polls.

In New Hampshire, Trump looks a bit like he does in Iowa — still very much the frontrunner but running between 40 and 50% since April — about ten points less than he runs nationally. The big difference is that in New Hampshire recently, the candidate coming in second is not DeSantis but Haley. She has had a very good autumn; in mid-September she passed DeSantis and has stayed in second place ever since. While Haley is nowhere near Trump on the metrics discussed above — social media presence, media mentions and money, she does well enough in all those areas that she can be expected, should lightning strike, to run a decent campaign. Among Republicans she is in sixth place on X, third place on Facebook and fifth place on Instagram. She’s in fourth place for media mentions, fourth place in terms of money raised (among Republicans) and in third place (tied with DeSantis) for cash on hand among Republicans.


So, to answer the two questions we started with — so far in the invisible primary Nikki Haley seems to be moving into position to mount a potential challenge to Trump. Of course, much stands in the way — her momentum needs to continue — a bad debate could end that — and she needs to have enough of an infrastructure to build on should she have a good showing in New Hampshire.

As for the Democrats, Biden’s biggest challenge is not in the Democratic primaries, but it is in the possibility that two well-known former Democrats, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West could mount sufficiently robust general election campaigns to take votes away from Biden, thus helping Trump and becoming spoilers in the presidential race. Of the two, Kennedy has by far the more robust campaign. He is sixth among candidates of both parties in terms of money raised and cash on hand, ninth in terms of media mentions, fifth on X, eleventh on Facebook and tied for third on Instagram. On every measure he is far ahead of Cornel West who has yet to raise more than half a million dollars. If he is able to keep building an organization, he could pose a significant challenge to President Biden’s reelection.

Stay up to date with our regularly-updated 2024 presidential primary tracker.

  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    Thanks to Cambron Wade, Anna Heetderks, Jordan Muchnick, Owen Averill, Annabel Hazrati and Adelle Patten for their work on data collection and data visualization.

    Google and Meta are general, unrestricted donors to the Brookings Institution. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions posted in this piece are solely those of the author and are not influenced by any donation.