This is the fifth installment of Epsilon Theory’s Election Index. Our aim with the feature is to lay as bare as possible the popular narratives governing the US elections in 2020. That includes narratives concerning policy proposals and candidates found in the news, opinion and feature content produced by national, local and smaller outlets.
Our goal is to make you a better, more informed consumer of political news by showing you indicators that the news you are reading may be affected by (1) adherence to narratives and other abstractions, (2) the association/conflation of topics and (3) the presence of opinions. Our goal is to help you – as much as it is possible to do – to cut through the intentional or unintentional ways in which media outlets guide you how to think about various issues, an activity we call Fiat News.
Our goal is to help you make up your own damn mind.
Our first edition covered April 2019, and included detailed explanations of each of the metrics we highlight below. If this is your first exposure to our narrative maps, analysis or metrics, we recommend that you start with that primer.
Notes to October 15 Analysis
- We have further pared our list of candidates to those consistently polling at >1% based on the October 10/11 Quinnipiac and Economist polls.
- This drops O’Rourke, Klobuchar, Booker and Gabbard from our metrics below.
- The analysis covers political media published during the period from September 1, 2019 through October 15, 2019.
Election Narrative Structure as of October 15, 2019
Commentary on Election Narrative Structure
- Our view on the Narrative of the 2020 Election has not changed since July: The common knowledge is that the 2020 election is a referendum on race, gender and class identity.
- This doesn’t mean we agree or disagree with this characterization.
- This means that this is what everyone thinks everyone thinks the election is about, at least as promulgated by US political media.
- Every highly connected cluster in the narrative structure from the months of July, August, September and October to-date was charged with and defined by this language.
- Outside of this consistent structure, we have also seen four major shifts in the election narrative:
- The most on-narrative candidate – the one whose personal narrative structure has best matched that of the election at large – has consistently been Bernie Sanders. We think this has changed as a direct result of missionary activity and actions taken by the new incumbent of that title. We now think the most on-narrative candidate is Elizabeth Warren.
- Impeachment, which was a peripheral issue, is now a central one to the election. We anticipate potential wedges between those in offices that can influence and speak publicly about their role in the proceedings (e.g. Warren, Sanders, Harris) and those whose commentary will come from the outside (e.g. Buttigieg, Biden).
- As we have written for nearly all of 2019, the forces arrayed against a successful Biden candidacy seem to us insurmountable; however, we analyze narratives, not polls. There are insights into Biden’s core electorate that we cannot offer. What we can offer is counsel to recognize in your own news consumption how concerted the decidedly negative coverage of Biden appears to be. Already the most negative by far, in September and October Biden coverage became almost unrecognizably negative in comparison to that of other candidates.
- In the wake of summer recession fears (see our ET Pro monitors for more on this), the Economy as an electoral issue has finally raised its head above water. This is worth close monitoring to see which early narratives take shape.
Candidate Cohesion Summary
Commentary on Candidate Cohesion
- The candidate with the most significant jump in narrative cohesiveness over the late summer should come as no surprise: it’s Elizabeth Warren.
- As is always the case with observing instead of predicting, it isn’t clear the extent to which media narratives have influenced or simply reflected the more cohesive story about who Warren is as a candidate. Either way, everyone knows that everyone knows what Warren means now in ways that were far less clear some months ago.
- Despite his fall in the polls, Sanders continues to have the clearest, most stable, most coherent narrative. Yet despite its continued favor among most media outlets (see Sentiment below), it seems to be the case that it’s a coherent narrative with limited electoral appeal.
- Yang has consistently produced the least cohesive coverage in media. When outlets cover him, they do so in context of non-overlapping niche issues, other candidates or human interest stories surrounding his monthly UBI-preview giveaways. The result continues to be no consistent common knowledge about what Yang means as a candidate.
- Surprisingly – and concerningly for his candidacy – this has increasingly been the case with Mayor Buttigieg as well. As an unknown early in the primary process, his limited coverage tended to be more cohesive because outlets told simple, consistent stories at different points. In spring debates, he was “erudite and intelligent.” Later coverage focused on his unique identity among candidates as an openly gay man. As debates have shifted into policies, that clear identity has faded – there is no Buttigieg policy narrative.
- As for Harris, the continued strong cohesion of her narrative structure shouldn’t be seen as positive. As we will note in the sentiment section below, she is increasingly getting the Biden treatment in media: “We know who you are, and we don’t like it.”
Candidate Sentiment Summary
Commentary on Candidate Sentiment
- In advance of her rise in polls, we noted in June and July that Sen. Warren was attracting much more positive sentiment across political media coverage, rivaling even that received by Sen. Sanders.
- This has continued over August and September, in which sentiment attached to Warren and Sanders coverage far exceeded that of any other major candidate.
- Those looking for a downtick in candidate narratives for lingering Native American / DNA test concerns or questioned claims of dismissal from an earlier career will come up empty.
- The reverse is true for Biden, whose already abysmally negative narrative took a nose dive. How bad? By our measure, coverage of Biden during this period was, on average, roughly 230% more negative than that of the average democratic candidate. By comparison, coverage of Sen. Sanders was about 90% more positive than that of the average democratic candidate.
- There is practically no issue relating to Biden’s candidacy which does not seem a ripe territory for profoundly negative language and coverage.
- The Sen. Harris narrative is slightly better, but our analysis (read: our opinion) is that she is rarely attached to policy questions (much more commonly to pure identity coverage), and that negative ‘hypocrisy’ language, especially with respect to rights, policing and justice, is prominent throughout her narrative structure.
Candidate Attention Summary
Commentary on Candidate Attention
- In our July update, we wrote the following:
- For better or worse, if Warren were to refocus efforts on participating more actively in the identity-related narratives that we believe represent the common knowledge about what the 2020 Election “is about”, we think she would emerge further as a leading candidate.
- We think that Senator Warren has done exactly this. We think the firming of a more coherent identity as “an electable and frankly less weird version of Sanders”, more positive sentiment and coverage more consistent with what the 2020 election “is about” at a macro level have been the results.
- We also wrote our opinion that Warren appeared to have trouble differentiating her narrative from Sanders, which meant that the more cohesive Sanders narrative tended to be more in-line with election narratives. Warren’s efforts have literally flipped this dynamic on its head. Now it is Sanders being asked what he offers as a candidate that Warren does not.
- Biden remains at high attention, but for almost universally bad reasons – in effect, there are two focal points in the election narrative structure.
- On the one hand, there is a high attention center of gravity focused on Biden and the common knowledge missionaries who want to promote a more-of-the-same, not-really-a-progressive, part-of-the-neoliberal-system narrative with very negative sentiment and language.
- On the other, there is a high attention center of gravity focused on identity and social/economic inequality issues. These were previously largely associated with the Sanders candidacy. We think that has since transitioned to Senator Warren.
- Importantly, we think that consumers of political news – especially if they agree with either of those characterizations – should be mindful and cautious of news appearing to hew closely to either of those narratives.