ET Election Index: The First Debate

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This content is related to the Epsilon Theory Election Index, a series we introduced here in hopes of better informing citizens and voters about the political narratives present in US national media.


With one debate down (and another to come tonight), we take a brief step back to look at how media are telling the story about the debate and its participants. As usual, we start with the network graph from our queries of national and local media, blogs and magazines published today about yesterday’s debates.

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Our takeaways from this coverage:

  • In general, coverage has been pretty negative. Format, technical difficulties, reviews of individual performances, single-issue opinion writers upset that their issue didn’t get enough airtime, etc. Not unusual for debates to have these logistical criticisms pop up, but there really weren’t any positive language clusters. No shining stars or issues that really popped out consistently in media coverage.
  • The one possible exception might be Tulsi Gabbard, whose dedicated coverage has been more on-narrative than her pre-debate coverage has been at any point. While not polling in a place to make her a credible challenger at this point, we think (our opinion, not fact) that her willingness to speak brashly on military and police action is likely to be a continuing point of provocation for moderate, traditional Democratic candidates.
  • Other than round-up pieces, the most central clusters to the narrative emerging from the debates include language about (1) border detention, (2) gender and equality and (3) an economy that “isn’t working for everyone.”
  • As we’ve observed elsewhere, the narrative that continues to resonate and is most often and loudly repeated by missionaries in media uses the language of economic socialism and intense emphasis on the situations of poor and minority citizens.
  • Other wonkish topics and policies may matter to voters, but they aren’t – and we think, won’t – be the issues that come before citizens through the media.
  • Warren-relative language was ubiquitous throughout the clusters – so much so that there isn’t really a Warren cluster. They are ALL Warren clusters.
  • That doesn’t mean the coverage was universally positive or cohesive. Our general sense is that most media narratives were mixed on her performance, at best. Most used this as an opportunity to present some of the lower-polling candidates as “surprises” or “underdogs.”
  • As cringe-worthy and meme-worthy as many (including comedians and late-night hosts) found Beto’s unprompted Spanish response to be, coverage of it is peripheral to the narratives emerging from the debate. We have other reasons for concern about the trajectory of his candidacy, but we are sellers of the idea that this is a deadly issue.
  • Same goes for technical difficulties – both are just being treated as quirky side issues.
  • Here are the five most on-narrative takes published about the first debate:
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