Biden in June: Popular but Disconnected

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This candidate-specific report is part of our Epsilon Theory Election Index series, in which we turn the tools of narrative analysis and natural language processing to media coverage of the 2020 election. For more about this series, including explanations of all of the terminology and measurement used here, please read our first installment here.


Biden Narrative Map as of May 31, 2019

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Biden Narrative Commentary

  • In general, while sentiment attached to Biden by the political media continues to be far more negative than for other major candidates, some of that sentiment is isolated to topics that don’t appear to be getting much traction: his role in the 1994 Crime Bill, the Trump/NK ‘low IQ’ banter and ‘Ukraine scandal’ being chief among them.

  • Articles about these topics tend to be standalone and linguistically distinct. They are usually only about that thing, and aren’t routinely being referred to in ‘core’ articles about the election and Biden’s candidacy. We judge that common knowledge at this point is that ‘these don’t matter and aren’t relevant to the election.’

  • That isn’t true, however, for Biden’s history with Anita Hill. It is much more connected to Biden’s central narrative, and the topics of sexism and racism – especially in context of the Democratic Party’s role in expunging them – are central to broader election narratives in a way that make this the ‘negative’ issue of concern.

  • The most striking feature of Biden coverage, however, is that the most connected, most on-narrative articles aren’t about Biden at all. They’re about Donald Trump or about a policy proposal or event from another candidate. In other words, Biden’s narrative is largely being defined as a measuring stick or comparison (e.g. will this allow candidate X to close the gap with Joe Biden in polls?) without much in the way of primary influence.

  • There is one exception: there DOES appear to be common knowledge that Biden is the candidate who can secure more votes from the black community.

  • Other than that, as expressed elsewhere our view is that Biden at this point is a candidate whose narrative in media is moderately well-defined, but mostly in terms of things other than his policies or candidacy, and whose narrative is at odds with the issues being promoted as ‘important’ to the 2019 election.

  • We suspect that the realization of this treatment – whether justified or not – has prompted some of Biden’s more aggressive recent moves, including his flip on the Hyde Amendment and declaration of Donald Trump as an ‘existential threat.’

Biden Narrative Attention as of May 31, 2019

  • As noted previously, relative to the other major candidates, the Biden narrative is very much at odds with the broader 2020 election narrative, which is what we track through our Attention measure.

  • What people write, care, and think about when they write, care, and think about the 2020 election is very different from what they write, care, and think about Joe Biden and his candidacy.

  • This effect has been far more pronounced since his announcement.

Biden Narrative Cohesion as of May 31, 2019

  • While attachment to broader election narratives has been weak, relative to other major candidates, the internal consistency of Biden coverage is comparable and competitive.

  • As his campaign has ramped up – and as his narrative as “front-runner” has emerged – the cohesion of a Biden narrative has accelerated.

  • In short, we see a moderately cohesive network of articles that simply isn’t all that related to anything else being written about the election, key topics, or policy issues.

Biden Narrative Sentiment as of May 31, 2019

  • While the sentiment attached to language used in Biden coverage has bounced back slightly from the lows following his candidacy announcement, it remains far below that of any other candidate over and during almost any period.

  • Some of this can be attributed to the early oppo research effects faced by any front-runner with an established legislative and political history, but even so it should be noted that this coverage has resulted in the presumably desired negative sentiment effects.

  • One could argue that Biden has actually been somewhat fortunate. The scandal and criticism-related topics other than Anita Hill have been sufficiently distant and disconnected from most coverage that their discussions have not really impacted the broader sentiment. As you can see from the sentiment visualization of the Biden narrative map for May 2019 below, the two most negative sentiment clusters are among the least well-connected to the broader Biden narrative.
  • Still, it remains our view that broader election media has (intentionally or unintentionally) treated socialism, green new deal, equality, difference from Trump and other issues outside of Biden’s wheelhouse as The Issues of the 2020 election thus far, and has been unfavorable in treatment of candidates, centrist or otherwise, who have not incorporated those principles into their own story-telling and platforms.

  • Biden’s more recent attempts to appeal to progressives – and the media response to them – will be telling and should be monitored, but our conclusions continue to be that (1) we would read any news about Biden with significant caution about the underlying attempts of the outlet to establish common knowledge about his candidacy, and that (2) we would not be surprised to see continued erosion in support for Biden in favor of Warren, Sanders and (to a lesser extent) Harris.

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