This is the second installment of Epsilon Theory’s new monthly feature – the ET 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 isn’t to uncover ‘media bias’.
Our goal isn’t to discuss the ‘fairness’ of coverage to different candidates.
Our goal isn’t to ‘fact check.’
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 May 31, 2019
Commentary on Election Narrative Structure
- We observed two major focal points within the 2020 Election narrative structure in May: an ongoing peripheral focus on impeachment discussions and election security / infrastructure, and a much more centralized discussion of the current roster of candidates and prominent election issues for 2020.
- The five most influential clusters on the overall network – meaning those with the most universal language similarity – were (1) Trump Super PAC, Embraces Big Money, (2) Electability, Likability, Sexism, Biases and Voter Suppression, (3) Markets Respond to Escalating China Trade War, (4) Joe Biden Beats President in Polls and (5) Strong Trump Economy
- Not far behind these topics and very close to the center of the overall network is the large cluster defined by references to Climate Change, the Green New Deal and terms associated with Socialism. The combination of these terms with discussion of sexism, biases and voter suppression leads us to believe that the core election narrative promulgated through media continues to be well-left-of-center populism.
- With the candidacy announcements of most major candidates now firmly in the past, most topical clustering has reverted to election issues and platforms rather than individual candidates.
- Our separate research on China Trade War narratives indicates that the “existential”, “national security” language has been increasingly conflated with trade war issues, especially beginning in May 2019. Tackling this issue and using it will be a unique challenge for Democratic candidates, some of whose support base is ambivalent (at best) about free trade.
- Whether it will match up with the final campaign remains to be seen, but we believe current media narratives are (by and large) positioning President Trump on the basis of his economic agenda and Democratic campaigners on their association with social / equality / fairness issues.
Candidate Cohesion Summary
Commentary on Candidate Cohesion
- Candidates in bold are those for whose coverage we would exercise special caution in our news consumption habits.
- Coverage of Sanders remains by far the most cohesive. Outlets have established language patterns and terms for discussing Sanders and his policies, and whether the authors (whether opinion or news writers) have an opinion, the abstraction of Sanders into ‘the Socialist Candidate” appears to be ubiquitous. We would read any Sanders coverage with special attention to this tendency.
- Cohesiveness around a Biden narrative has broken down somewhat after the fever pitch following his candidacy announcements. We would always counsel caution when consuming political news, but no longer think there is cause for particular caution with respect to Biden news.
- The deterioration of any coherent narrative about O’Rourke and Booker continued in May. They still both receive significant volume of coverage, but the language used across outlets was highly variable and disparate in tone and approach, and lacked any abstractions of the candidates or policies into any ‘idea’ or ‘role’ in the primary process. We think it is fair to say there is no longer a Beto or Booker narrative.
- The biggest cohesion riser – and we think, the major beneficiary to Beto’s decline – is Pete Buttigieg. Earlier media reports were much more disparate, but Mayor Pete’s May coverage nearly approached Sanders-level unanimity among media outlets.
Candidate Sentiment Summary
Commentary on Candidate Sentiment
- The candidates in bold are those whose levels or changes in coverage sentiment would give us pause in our consumption of election coverage.
- Yang’s extremely positive coverage continued in May, but on only a slight increase in volume.
- While coverage of Biden was less negative in May – mostly on the back of a strong cluster of stories written about polls demonstrating his advantage against Donald Trump – it remained below average and was not enough to pull YTD sentiment out of last place among major candidates.
- In addition to a clear cohesive narrative, Bernie Sanders enjoyed the most positive coverage of all major (non-Yang) candidates in May.
- Gabbard, Harris and Warren continued to be associated with far more negative language, in spite of a high concentration of articles highlighting and empathizing with the existence of a potential double standard in the evaluation of female candidates.
Candidate Attention Summary
Commentary on Candidate Attention
- As was the case in our April update, among high-polling candidates, the broader election narrative (i.e. topics, language, people and issues) aligns most closely with Sanders and has since the beginning of the primary process. In other words, the things that journalists, opinion writers, bloggers and pundits are saying about the election and its major issues are the things they also associate with Bernie Sanders.
- The language used in discussions of Booker and Klobuchar continues to be the mirror image of Sanders: completely disconnected from broader election narratives.
- While a more coherent Buttigieg narrative emerged in May, it was similarly disconnected from broader election narratives. Like Gabbard or Yang, Buttigieg runs some risk of having clear stories told about him which have little to do with the central stories being told about the election.
- Despite the huge volume of his coverage, Biden’s attention dipped below that of Warren, Harris and Sanders in May.
- In general, our interpretation is that media treatment at this stage has been more aligned with more progressive candidates and their platforms and less favorable to more centrist candidates and theirs.
- The goal of our research is to equip voters to consume election information with clear eyes, and not necessarily as a predictive science. Given this narrative structure, however, we would not be surprised to see continued erosion and splitting of Biden’s current support among Warren, Harris and Sanders.
The Continuing Series
Following the upcoming candidate-specific reports, this series – including issue-related narrative analyses – will continue as an Epsilon Theory Premium feature and will require a subscription.
If you are looking for a more detailed package of our election narrative signals and analytics, including raw data and candidate- and issue-level narrative structure analysis, please email us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.