A hashtag created a week ago has become the rallying cry for Republicans who feel their party is being torn to pieces. Will primary voters care?
A day after Donald Trump's Republican primary victory in South Carolina, James Bailey, a declared supporter of the now-withdrawn Republican candidate Rand Paul, tweeted the following:
Bailey didn't invent the hashtag #NeverTrump. It had been used sporadically in the preceding weeks. But 100 retweets later, it was Bailey, the political junkie from Louisiana, who had planted the seed for what would later become the national "Never Trump" online movement.
That movement then erupted when an 18-year-old Twitter user from Wisconsin, Benji Backer, also a self-identified Republican, took to Twitter during a televised debate between Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump, Florida senator Marco Rubio and Texas senator Ted Cruz:
Minutes later, it was retweeted by Aaron Gardner of Colorado, who runs a consultancy for the "Republican/Conservative political world." He then added his own two cents:
Gardner, a prolific tweeter, quickly became the #NeverTrump online champion, furiously retweeting anyone who used the hashtag. Five hours later, as it rose up the Twitter trending charts, it was spotted by Marco Rubio's social media staff.
'Neither of them'
While political hashtags continually rise and fall, part of what makes #NeverTrump unique is that it's being embraced by elite figures within the Republican party establishment itself - and to attack one of their own.
The first and most important politician to do so remains Marco Rubio, who attached a highlight reel of the previous evening's televised debate when he first tweeted #NeverTrump:
As a result of that "boost," the hashtag had been used half a million times within 24 hours of the televised debate.
On Sunday (28.02.2016), Glenn Beck, a prominent Republican television and radio personality (and a supporter of Ted Cruz, seen below in the background), wrote:
Monday, a day before the Super Tuesday primaries, Ben Sasse, a senator from Nebraska, joined the anti-Trump movement with the following post on Facebook:
"The Trump coalition is broad and complicated, but I believe many Trump fans are well-meaning. I have spoken at length with many of you, both inside and outside Nebraska. You are rightly worried about our national direction. You ache about a crony-capitalist leadership class that is not urgent about tackling our crises. You are right to be angry.
"I'm as frustrated and saddened as you are about what's happening to our country. But I cannot support Donald Trump."
After Trump failed to disassociate himself on live television fromthe support of a racist Ku Klux Klan leader
, Whitney Westerfield, a state senator from Kentucky, joined the #NeverTrump campaign:
The most recent addition to the anti-Trump campaign is Scott Rigell, a congressman from Virginia who warned Republicans in his state of "catastrophe" were Donald Trump to be elected (as tweeted here by journalist Reid J. Epstein):
What does the #NeverTrump campaign mean to regular people, though?
Is it changing the preferences of Republican primary voters? Or is it merely preaching to the choir, with those spreading it already preferring other Republican candidates, anyway?
The answer will come when polls close after Super Tuesday primary elections across 12 US states, when analysts can determine whether the negative social media coverage, which coincided with the John-Oliver-inspired #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain campaign, ultimately caused a dip in the ratings of the billionaire entrepreneur.
In the meantime, Trump supporters will continue battling back with a hashtag of their own, one that's currently being used at roughly one-tenth the rate of #NeverTrump: