Election Tracker Research

Horserace or issues? Tracking the media’s coverage of the 2020 election

It is quickly becoming impossible to ignore the 2020 presidential buzz. President Trump, of course, will likely be the Republican nominee barring some unlikely development. But on the Democratic side of things, a plethora of candidates have either officially thrown their hat into the ring or are poised to do so very soon.

Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand are getting most of the attention right now, but there are more than a dozen others who are possibilities to enter the fray. And as this pool of candidates grows more and more chaotic, you can be sure that news outlets everywhere will be watching closely, ready to crown frontrunners and disappointments.

But we here at Storybench aren’t much for political punditry. Instead, we like to stick to our specialties: keeping tabs on media trends and using data to explore narratives. So, instead of keeping track of who’s ahead in the horse race, we’ll be turning our focus to those covering the horse race: the media outlets themselves.

Much was made of the media’s role in the 2016 election, and it is a guarantee that a lot of that discourse will return for 2020. As our contribution, over the next few months we’ll be collecting articles from the mainstream media on prominent candidates, analyzing them, and breaking down what we see in our Storybench 2020 Election Coverage Tracker. Some of the details are still being worked out, but you can expect to learn which words and phrases are being used the most to describe each candidate, which issues are being focused on, what sort of sentiment is associated with each candidate, how different outlets cover the race, and more.

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Our main tool to do these analyses will be R’s tidytext package, which we’ve used for past projects as well. We’ll include important pieces of code where necessary to give a glimpse behind the curtain.

The first update to the tracker is in the works currently, but just from a qualitative look at our sample of articles, certain trends are popping up already:

  • The controversy over Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage is haunting the Massachusetts senator. The majority of the articles we sampled mentioned it in some capacity.
  • The media is fixating heavily on Kamala Harris’s prosecutorial history, but also widely portrays her as the strongest candidate in the field.
  • Despite the presence of other competitive female candidates in the race, gender seems to be discussed more with Kirsten Gillibrand than with anyone else.
  • Cory Booker just can’t seem to escape these Obama comparisons—whether he minds the comparisons is another question.

You can expect more detailed analysis in the coming weeks. We hope to update the tracker in the run-up to 2020, with a different focus every update. Hopefully, the results will leave us a little more literate about the candidates and the issues.

Alexander Frandsen and Aleszu Bajak
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