This is the fourth 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 July 31, 2019
Commentary on Election Narrative Structure
- We officially think there is a 2020 election narrative.
- The common knowledge is that the 2020 election is a referendum on race, gender and 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 month of July is charged with and defined by this language.
- Asylum seekers and immigrants, the black vote, the narrative of electability surrounding women and gay candidates, and ‘the white vote from the rust belt’ loom large in the center of and in connections between nearly all 2020 election coverage.
- Sentiment in coverage has also started to crystallize in a more dramatic way:
- Sen. Harris and Biden have taken the raw end of this exchange, and in a more coherent, higher attention way than before.
- In contrast, Sanders and Warren have received glowingly positive language in their media coverage.
- We also note that Trump himself has begun to insert his presence into the narrative structure, despite being less present on the formal campaign trail.
Candidate Cohesion Summary
Commentary on Candidate Cohesion
- Post-debate Sen. Harris has a much more coherent narrative structure than in prior months. Unfortunately – as noted shortly – it is one loaded with negative language, especially relating to Harris’s law enforcement background and spars with former VP Biden.
- Biden’s coverage has been similar to Harris’s: more coherent, but coherent in its skepticism that he is a candidate that can win, skepticism that his record is sufficiently progressive to energize the Democrat base, and skepticism that he will address the race, gender and other identity issues lying at the center of the 2020 election zeitgeist.
- Sen. Warren is a bit of an enigma. In many ways, her narrative strikes us as a “poor man’s Sanders” – less internally cohesive, less in tune with the zeitgeist, and positive…but not quite as positive as Sanders. But qualitatively, she is increasingly entangled with the same anti-corporate power, anti-inequality base and narratives that are most strongly associated with Sen. Sanders.
- As per usual, media accounts of Gabbard and Yang are indifferent, varied and largely presented in context of other candidates. After the shock of a surprisingly positive performance in initial debates, Buttigieg content has reverted back to prior incoherent mixtures of general “round-up” content and narrow issue pieces.
- The media seems to regard O’Rourke with a collective “meh”. They know who he is, and they’ll cover him, but the days of magazine covers and strong common knowledge about what “Beto means” appear to be gone for the time being.
Candidate Sentiment Summary
Commentary on Candidate Sentiment
- Sens. Warren and Sanders – perhaps unsurprisingly, given July’s emphasis on health care – were head and shoulders above the rest of the candidates in terms of coverage sentiment.
- This is standard fare for Sanders at this point, but only a June/July development for Warren, who appears to have attracted meaningfully more positive language from political media accounts.
- Yang and Buttigieg were the only other candidates whose language we would regard as positive.
- Gabbard, Biden and Booker have cemented their place in the cellar. Media accounts of their candidacies are routinely negative, emphasize electability concerns, highlight conflicts/spats with other candidates, and bring out claims of hypocrisy.
- For this reason, we would be very cautious in our consumption of Gabbard, Biden, Sanders and Warren news, where we think that emerging narratives have made it more likely that ‘news’ content will be infected with affect and affected framing, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Candidate Attention Summary
Commentary on Candidate Attention
- As noted before, Harris is very much in line with the July election Zeitgeist, but we regard this as a function of negative coverage. We think that undecided voters should tread carefully when consuming and reading ‘news’ about Sen. Harris, whose jabs at Biden were quickly transformed into claims of hypocrisy, assertions of a weak position to argue on issues of inequality (i.e. “Kamala was a cop!” narratives), and unelectability concerns.
- Buttigieg has faded from connection to the language used about the election as quickly as he rose, which is not uncommon for strong debate performers who were previously minor candidates.
- It is Beto whose disconnection to the zeitgeist has been more striking.
- We note that Warren’s attention scores remain low, despite positive sentiment and cohesion. We think (this is our judgment / opinion, not something present in the data) that this is a function of two things:
- Many of the positions Warren is associated with, Sanders is more associated with. In coverage, this means that Sanders tends to get the lion’s share of relationship to these key electoral issues.
- Warren’s status as a policy wonk has meant that she has focused less on the race, gender and identity issues that we argue represent the 2020 election zeitgeist.
- 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.
- In the meantime and absent that change, based on our views about the influence of media-driven common knowledge effects, we think that among major candidates, Sanders will outperform most expectations, and that Biden will continue to converge to his more negative narrative.
- This also means these are the candidates where we would be most cautious that media sources might be influencing how they want us to think about the news pertaining to them.