Election Index: Beyond the Debates – 6.30.2019

This is the third 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.

Election Narrative Structure as of June 30, 2019

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Commentary on Election Narrative Structure

  • Our previously expressed views – that adoption of active narratives into public common knowledge would cause Biden to fade in favor of Sanders, Warren and Harris – proved largely accurate (although we did not anticipate how meaningful the bump to Harris would be).
  • Our data covers the whole month (not just the post-debate period), but it is striking that the debate-specific coverage in the southeast quadrant of the graph is so distinct and separate from the rest of election coverage. Some of this is just a reflection of pre-and-post-debate narratives changing, but we think this distinction is indicative of very strong narratives in media that are being promoted by outlets in spite or or in response to debate outcomes.
  • The most connected language and most central articles, however, are not candidate- or issue-specific. They are identity-related, articles about “White America”, ‘Black Voters”, ‘Hatred, Prejudice and Rage”, and the candidates capable of representing and achieving electoral success by appealing to each. In the wake of the Harris/Biden busing debate issue, the media have taken this lens to a new extreme.
  • President Trump has entered the narrative fray on 2020, and coverage of his comments and campaign launch represented a meaningful change in the overall network structure.
  • The debate has not reshaped the narrative of “Issues That Matter”. That continues to be built around democratic socialism and more general leftward inertia. Both fear-driven articles and those with a favorable temperament toward these policies and the inequality faced by the poor, students and migrants are far ahead of competing economic, abortion, impeachment, foreign policy or entitlement program policies.
  • At a high level, we think these are the issues that media outlets are promoting as “what matters” in 2020:
    • Social equality (race, sexuality, gender and treatment of immigrations/asylum-seekers)
    • Economic equality (income and wealth)
    • Healthcare
    • Education, Student Debt
  • We think these are the issues that are otherwise absent so far from any media-promoted narrative about the 2020 election:
    • Trade
    • Foreign policy / military
    • Abortion / reproductive rights
    • Climate change and the environment (surprisingly)
  • As we gauge our own sensitivity to and focus on certain issues, we would be conscious of Fiat News nudges to “care more” about certain issues than others, and to be sensitive to those cases where certain positions are more or less attached to various candidates.

Candidate Cohesion Summary

Commentary on Candidate Cohesion

  • Despite a generally panned debate performance, Sanders remains at the top of our cohesion score, both for the primary process to-date and for June specifically. That means that the language used about Sanders continues to be internally consistent. The Sanders narrative is common knowledge.
  • A Buttigieg narrative, however, has emerged following a debate performance that crystallized in a substantially higher rate of pieces characterizing him as erudite, well-prepared and intelligent, in addition to an almost obligatory reference to the recent police-involved shooting event in South Bend.
  • While Biden content to-date has referenced a generally consistent – if negative – internal narrative, the internal cohesion of Biden stories cratered in June. We think much of this pertains to the conflict between pre-debate stories about Biden as the candidate with the greatest potential among black voters, and post-debate stories positioning Biden based on a segregationist-friendly past. It further muddies the waters of an already challenging narrative to manage.
  • The Sen. Harris narrative was less cohesive in June – a result, we think, of broader, further-reaching coverage after she emerged as a more prominent candidate following her first debate performance.
  • We would continue to be cautious in our consumption of Fiat News about Sanders, where we expect coverage to continue to be auto-tuned to existing narratives of what Sanders is as a candidate. We would likewise be cautious of Fiat News in news about Buttigieg and Biden, where significant change in narrative cohesion indicates to us potential new missionary activity and attempts to change that narrative.

Candidate Sentiment Summary

Commentary on Candidate Sentiment

  • The biggest positive movers in sentiment of media coverage in June were Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg, all of whom were already relatively positive to begin with. But social equality, economic equality and socialist-friendly narratives were especially powerful in June coverage.
  • The negative sentiment attached to Biden narratives persisted in June, and worsened slightly after additional negative coverage of his debate performance and poll results.
  • We think that sentiment, as manifested through Fiat News and affected language, is perhaps the easiest narrative structural element to spot. It is also, however, very easy to slip into confirmation of our preconceptions. When sentiment aligns with our predispositions, we tend to see it as reasonable, factual language. When it is misaligned, we tend to see it very clearly as biased.
  • For this reason, we continue to recommend caution in all news and analysis judging Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg, regardless of whether the sentiment strikes us as ‘reasonable’ or ‘justified’ given recent events.

Candidate Attention Summary

Commentary on Candidate Attention

  • If you are surprised that Harris has not risen in terms of attention in June, don’t be. Our attention measure is not a measure of how much coverage a candidate or topic receives, and while Buttigieg and Harris were the big winners from June on that dimension, our measure is one of the consistency of candidate/topic language with the overall narrative. Despite a powerful group of post-debate articles arguing for Harris as the ‘winner’ of the first round of debates, the language used to describe Harris’s candidacy remains disparate and distinct from most of the language used to describe ‘what matters’ about the election.
  • In other words, we think that Harris gained in polls and favorability through what was perceived as a rousing personal defeat of Biden, the front-runner.
  • We think that this victory hasn’t really resonated in narrative world, because it isn’t connected to the common knowledge about what the 2020 election “is about”. We think that means that – barring a change in those narratives – observers expecting Harris to demonstrate continued momentum against Warren and Sanders may be disappointed.
  • Sanders is the candidate whose own narrative is most ‘on-narrative’ with the election more broadly. In other words, what Sanders is about (in media) continues to be what the 2020 Election is about (again, in media).
  • The biggest positive mover, as elsewhere, has been Buttigieg. We think that the rise in attention here is more sustainable, given that Buttigieg’s message, sentiment and cohesion appear to have been adopted by media outlets fairly readily and quickly.
  • That also means that we would expect to see more coverage of Mayor Pete’s candidacy that seek to tell a story through Fiat News. We would remain mindful of this in our news consumption.

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  1. What would be your commentary around Gabbard’s cohesion and sentiment? To me, she is a candidate who makes clear what her number one priority is: anti-war.

  2. Rusty - Is attention more akin to affinity? In other words, it describes the affinity of the narratives around a candidate with the narratives that matter in the election. I find that thinking of attention this way helps me understand the data I am seeing better…but…best to check in with the wizard behind the curtain.

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