If you’re a keen observer of politics and/or what’s trending on Twitter, #MoscowMitch, a hashtag and nickname for Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, likely won’t require much by way of introduction. But where did it come from, and what drove it to be one of the top 10 hashtags across Twitter for most of August?

Those are exactly the questions our data team set out to answer as they took a deep dive into the history of the term on Twitter. What they found is a prime example of how quickly a hashtag can go from being an obscure reference, to something that has the potential to overshadow, if not define, a 35-year career in the Senate.

Or, as Dan Rather put it:

The Tale of the Tape

Just how big of a deal is #MoscowMitch?

The hashtag first appeared on December 9, 2016. To date, it’s been used more than 2,960,000 times across Twitter.

More than 99% of those uses have occurred since the hashtag went viral in July 2019. As we’ll see below, despite the prevailing political climate, before last month #MoscowMitch had been used just a few hundred times in two years, before racking up a couple of million uses in a matter of weeks.

By contrast, #TrumpRussia, which can be considered a close relative by intent to #MoscowMitch, has been used around 10 times more than #MoscowMitch, racking up more than 26,631,000 uses over a similar timespan.

When examined over a long period of time, then, #MoscowMitch seems like small potatoes. But, if viewed since the point it went viral, #MoscowMitch has seen the kind of usage in two weeks that the much more common #TrumpRussia hashtag typically sees in five months.

First Use

The first use of #MoscowMitch on Twitter occurred on December 9, 2016, following a Washington Post article about a secret CIA assessment of Russian interest and possible interference in the 2016 election.

In the ensuing conversation, actress @DebraMessing  discussed the article, and at 9.09 PM ET noted that McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, opposed “calling out Russia for hacking” during the 2016 election.

Just 11 minutes later, at 9.20 PM ET, Twitter account @nestedlog used #MoscowMitch for the first time, in a tweet with no other content. It gained just 2 retweets and 5 likes.

Seven minutes later, at 9.27 PM ET, the hashtag was used for the second time, by Twitter user @waldowilbur, in response to Messing’s 9.09 PM tweet. Again, the tweet gained very little traction.

Over the next few days, the hashtag appeared a handful of times, before seeing a spike of around 140 uses on December 13, 2016—most of which are retweets of a since-deleted tweet by @SummerBrennan.

After that, the hashtag failed to catch on, logging just 30 uses for the whole of 2017, with similar levels throughout 2018 and 2019, until…

The Scarborough Effect

On July 25, 2019, #MoscowMitch went viral, thanks in large part to MSNBC host Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC). Here’s the tweet that started it all:

For the first hour or two, Scarborough’s tweet drove the entirety of the conversation on Twitter that included the hashtag #MoscowMitch.

Then, two hours later, Scott Dworkin, Co-Founder of the Democratic Coalition Against Trump (@Funder), jumped in:

Together, these two tweets were responsible for almost all of the mentions of #MoscowMitch that occurred on July 25, their retweets making up roughly two-thirds of the volume for the day.

Evidently, both Dworkin and Scarborough were pleased with the attention, as they both posted follow-up #MoscowMitch tweets the next day as well:

From here, the hashtag took on a life of its own, rapidly spreading and going viral in a matter of hours – helped along by Dan Rather’s analysis (see above), which itself generated some 17,900 retweets of the hashtag.

Years in the Making, Hours to Explode

At this point, the question of how much damage – if any – #MoscowMitch has done to McConnell’s career is impossible to tell. In real terms, it may amount to nothing at all. While he is up for re-election in 2020, fivethirtyeight noted recently that, as of 2018, McConnell’s home state of Kentucky “was about 23 points more Republican than the country as a whole” – a substantial buffer for any candidate.

But not everything in politics is about winning individual races – reputation and legacy matter too, especially for one of the Republican party’s most recognizable faces heading into an election year. And, McConnell’s personal legacy aside, that could turn out to be the real #MoscowMitch story. If the hashtag-led rebranding of McConnell sticks around deep into the political cycle, will it start to rebrand his party too?

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