Another Marjorie Taylor Greene or AOC? We found Congress' next potential lightning rods.

·9 min read

Who sounds like Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene among candidates running for Congress in 2022? On the progressive side, who's speaking in the mold of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York?

Using a technique known as hierarchical clustering, USA TODAY compared the words used in Twitter posts by more than 1,500 candidates running for Congress in 2022 to those tweeted by sitting members of Congress.

The findings reveal up-and-coming politicians who share common language with firebrand incumbents like Greene and Ocasio-Cortez.

That's a new rhetorical facet we'll explore in today's installment of USA TODAY’s Red Words, Blue Words, where we use text analysis tools to unpack social media posts from the world of American politics.

Before we turn to the crop of candidates with linguistic ties to MTG and AOC, let's look at last week's rising phrases.

Abortion falls off the radar

As of July 26, Democratic candidates increased their usage of phrases including "marriage equality," "birth control" and "climate change," while Republicans dedicated a growing share of their social media time to terms like "recession," "climate," "emergency" and "COVID."

The diverse array of topics is in stark contrast to the discussion just two weeks ago, when campaign talk centered more singularly around abortion and the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade.

"Crises burn hot and fast" on Twitter, said Annelise Russell, a professor at the University of Kentucky's Martin School for Public Policy.

Both parties also have invested more of their recent verbiage in ordinary electioneering chatter, flagging dates of upcoming primaries or hyping ways to donate money online.

On social media at least, Democratic candidates appear to be moving away from the Dobbs abortion ruling towards topics where they can point to legislative progress.

Democrats and the White House have a string of legislative victories on the horizon – pertaining to same-sex marriage, computer chip manufacturing and prescription drug pricing. And the House recently passed a bill ensuring access to contraception. The left has said marriage equality and birth control are two more rights in the court's crosshairs now that Roe is gone.

Abortion repeatedly has played a bigger role in Democrats' rhetoric than Republicans' this election cycle, our data shows.

With their new messaging mix, Democrats appear to have pivoted strategically to what they can accomplish in the future rather than pointing out their loss.

Anat Shenker-Osorio, a political consultant for progressives, said the recent shift is evidence that "tweeting condemnations" of Republicans over the abortion ruling, in the absence of legislative solutions, was not a winning approach.

“It’s really, really, really important to say what you’re for as opposed to simply what you’re against," said Shenker-Osorio. "And that is a place where the left falls down a lot.”

Words related to climate change gained as a share of all words in both parties' campaign messages.

A key prompt was President Joe Biden's executive actions July 20 aimed at addressing the problem.

"Biden’s 'climate emergency' will further bankrupt our country and cripple American energy," wrote Catalina Lauf, Republican House candidate of Illinois who won her primary in late June.

Democrats, meanwhile, weren't so much cheering on Biden as they were calling for more leadership in the face of global heat waves and drought. "What will it cost us to *not* act on climate?" wrote Nina Turner, Democrat of Ohio, who lost her House primary in May.

Who is the next Marjorie Taylor Greene?

Red Words, Blue Words this week tested out an interesting computational technique that clusters social media accounts by linguistic similarity, hoping to identify congressional hopefuls who best matched well-known personas from the left and right wings of the current Congress. The analysis, which examined posts from Jan. 1 to July 1, included candidates who have lost their primaries.

We are just starting to use this linguistic algorithm, and it has limitations like any algorithm. We certainly cannot say that the candidate clusters identified by this algorithm are cookie-cutters.

With that disclaimer, which Republican House candidates' words came closest overall to those often used by Greene, one of the most vocal lawmakers in the right-wing "America First" coalition? They were: Cait Corrigan, Liz Joy and Andrew Kyle McCarthy of New York; Joe Kent of Washington; and Noah Malgeri of Nevada. All are self-proclaimed "America First" candidates.

Malgeri, who's called Joe Biden a "fake president," lost his primary. Kent's primary is on Aug. 2 against incumbent GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Butler, one of a few Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach Donald Trump last year. The New York candidates, who are running for separate seats, have a primary on Aug. 23. Corrigan is running in New York's 1st district, rated as a competitive seat by the Cook Political Report.

What about people who echo Greene, who represents a Georgia district northwest of Atlanta, on specific issues like abortion? For this one topic, we decided to filter down to tweets published since early May, when Justice Samuel Alito's draft decision became public.

Republican House candidate Jameson Ellis of Texas and Republican Senate candidate James P. Bradley of California appeared the most similar to Greene based on the algorithm.

Much of the language that conservatives like Greene are using to discuss abortion on social media invoke religious arguments, and Ellis, who lost his primary challenge to sitting GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw, made religion central to his campaign.

"If you are pregnant, God made you completely capable to be a mother, and he will provide for you, as you strive in life and become a mother," Greene wrote in late June on Twitter.

Ellis, in a tweet from early May: "life is an unalienable God-given right."

Bradley, the Californian, also lost his primary race.

When we took the same clustering rules used for Greene on abortion and applied them to tweets about immigration, the algorithm produced a much larger cluster of 13 candidates that included other sitting members of Congress. But within this cluster, the four candidates closest to Greene were outsiders: Cory Mills, running for a House seat in Florida; and Senate candidates David McCormick of Pennsylvania, Jim Lamon of Arizona and Donald Bolduc of New Hampshire.

Mills is a veteran who's compared Democrats to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. McCormick is a former hedge fund executive who narrowly lost his primary to television personality Mehmet Oz. Lamon participated in a plan to send alternate electors to Washington, D.C. to certify Trump as the winner, an episode that featured prominently in the recent Jan. 6 committee hearings.

Bolduc, a retired Army general who's in a crowded GOP primary for a shot at challenging Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, wrote in a tweet: "As @JoeBiden and @KamalaHarris continue to ignore the crisis unfolding at our Southern Border, I'll continue to be vocal about it. Enough is enough! We must stop letting cartels and human traffickers profit off our open borders, and secure them now!"

The tweet had echoes of Greene's in late May: "Our country is suffering crisis after crisis of human & drug trafficking at our dangerous wide open border."

Nick Dyer, a spokesman for Rep. Greene, in response to the list of candidates that our text algorithm linked to Greene, wrote: "Congresswoman Greene speaks for herself. I’m not familiar with any of these other people you’ve referenced. But as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

Who sounds like AOC?

When we looked closely at common terms shared by candidates our clustering algorithm linked to Greene, we found a large number of narrow, multi-word phrases that overlapped. Not so with Ocasio-Cortez.

Candidates we counted in the progressive New York lawmaker's orbit appeared to have landed there mainly due their use of generic phrases such as "health care" or "education."

It's hard to say what this means. Perhaps Ocasio-Cortez often uses rhetoric that is tamer than people think. Or maybe when she uses fiery rhetoric, the words are uniquely AOC.

What's certain is that few of the people the algorithm identified as matches for AOC will be joining her in Congress next year.

Three who shared a common overall vocabulary with Ocasio-Cortez lost their states' primaries by landslides: Barrett Holman Leak of California, McKayla Wilkes of Maryland, and Jazari Kual Zakaria of Nebraska.

Holman Leak was a write-in candidate who drew 55 votes against incumbent Democratic Rep. Sara Jacobs, running on issues like canceling student debt and Medicare for all. Wilkes, the founder of an organization called Schools not Prisons, took on Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and received 19% of the vote. Zakaria, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, drew 9% of the vote in the Democratic primary against state senator Patty Pansing Brooks for an open seat.

The fourth candidate on our list of candidates similar to AOC on overall verbiage was Danielle Hawk of Florida, a political newcomer who's on the ballot Aug. 23. Her campaign said by email Hawk appreciated being compared to Ocasio-Cortez, "who works every day to help working families."

Ocasio-Cortez did not respond to a request for comment.

As for congressional hopefuls who sound most like AOC on abortion since early May, Red Words, Blue Words identified Democratic House candidates Nida Allam of North Carolina, Trudy Busch Valentine of Missouri, and Alexandra Hunt of Pennsylvania.

Allam is a Durham County commissioner who lost her primary in May with 35% of the vote. Busch Valentine is a nurse and a member of the Anheuser-Busch family who has a primary on Aug. 2. Hunt, who lost her primary with about 17% of the vote, campaigned on addressing issues like health care "deserts" and equity in public education in the Philadelphia area.

Hunt told USA TODAY that "it shouldn't be a surprise that words I wrote often sync up with other people on the left who are very present online."

Here again, the language these candidates hold in common with Ocasio-Cortez sounds a lot like that of other Democrats. Could it be that AOC is more disciplined than other Democratic lawmakers about sticking to the party's talking points, as are her linguistic peers?

If so, it would probably come as a welcome news to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the political veteran who famously feuded with Ocasio-Cortez during her first year in office.

As we get to know the clustering algorithm better, we hope to gain some deeper insights into what the results mean.

Stay tuned.

Contributing: Veronica Bravo, USA TODAY; Melissa Ellin, Lily Kepner, Yuyan Li, Vy Nguyen, Samuele Petruccelli and Jiayi Shen, Boston University Justice Media Computational Journalism co-Lab.

The analysis used a technique called agglomerative hierarchical clustering on a data set that combined all official Twitter accounts from current members of Congress with more than 1,500 campaign accounts for candidates running for Senate and House in 2022. Words used fewer than five times are excluded from the analysis, as are retweets.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: A new AOC or Marjorie Taylor Greene? Who are Congress' next firebrands