The way Americans choose their President is complicated. Foreign election interference in previous elections as well as a polarized, partisan political arena at home only made it more complicated to elect the leader of the free world. In the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the coronavirus pandemic completely upended how presidential campaigns rally supporters and how to run for public office at large. An underfunded and stripped of its human capital Postal Service is facing an unprecedented volume of mail-in ballots. This leaves me with the question: What is the impact of COVID on the race for the White House? How are both campaigns using it (or not) to drive their political pitch to capture voters? An answer might be a recent data memo by researchers from the University of Leeds – School of Politics and International Studies.
The impact of COVID on the upcoming November 2020 US election will be an important topic in the coming months. In order to contribute to these debates, this data memo, the final in our summer 2020 series on COVID, considers this question based on an analysis of social media discourse in two week-long periods in late May and early July. We find that only a very small proportion of tweets in election-related trends concern both the election and COVID. In the May period, there was much evidence of conspiracy-style and misinformative content, largely attacking the Democrats, the seriousness of COVID and postal-voting. Tweets also showed that the stances of the Presidential nominees towards the coronavirus has emerged as a major point of political differentiation. In the July period, tweets about COIVD and the election were dominated by the influence of a new anti-Trump Political Action Committee’s viral videos, with the hashtags associated with these videos found in 2.5% of all tweets in election-related trends across the period. However, this criticism was not mirrored in the wider dataset of election-related or political tweets in election-related trends. Criticism of Trump was frequent across all time periods and samples, but discourse focused far more on Trump especially in the July period in which tweets about Trump outnumbered tweets about Biden 2 to 1. We conclude that these patterns suggest the issue of COVID in the US has become so highly politicised that it is largely only one side of the political spectrum engaging with how COVID will impact the US election. Thus, we must ask going forward not how COVID will impact the process and outcome of the election but rather how COVID will be used as a political and campaign issue in the coming election.
Make sure to read the full data memo titled COVID’s Impact on the US 2020 Election: Insights from Social Media Discourse in the Early Campaign Period by Gillian Bolsover at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3714755
We had a good run in the first three months of 2020. Then the COVID pandemic spread across the globe. Most industrial nations had to shut down their economies with rigorous lockdown and shelter-in-place policies paralyzing its citizens and economies alike. COVID also impacted the democratic processes of many developed nations. For example, New Zealand rescheduled their national election until late 2020. Elections for the Hong Kong city legislature were postponed until 2021. At least 88 elections were impacted in one way or another by COVID. This data memo focuses on the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, which will not only decide a highly polarized presidential campaign between incumbent President Donald Trump and his democratic challenger Joe Biden, but also elect the entire U.S. House of Representatives, a third of the U.S. Senate and decide numerous races for public office. It takes a snapshot from the campaign trail comparing social media data discussing the elections and COVID in conjunction with either candidate and it does demonstrate how the pandemic not only impacts the 2020 U.S. presidential elections but how COVID is used as a political weapon to advance campaign objectives.
For most people across the globe, Mid-March marks the beginning of indoor restrictions, facemasks, social distancing and the loss of minimal certainty that our socio-economic environments have to offer. It was a pivot-point for political operatives, who in past elections were able to rely on a candidate’s charisma at in-person political rallies. COVID forced both campaigns to adhere to public health guidelines. Republican and Democratic campaign events were either cancelled or moved indoors and online. Supporters and candidates alike were confined to choppy Zoom calls on small screens. Studies have shown that these national crises usually create an increase in favorability for an incumbent president, e.g. the popularity of George W. Bush spiked following the terrorist attacks on September 11. They also tend to benefit Republican or conservative leaders more in particular in conjunction with a patriotic narrative. This effect is known as the ‘Rally-Round-The-Flag’ effect. However, its impact is subject to media coverage and proliferation of the political narrative that is spun up by the incumbent’s campaign. And Trump as an experienced social media operative stood to benefit from the COVID pandemic: the U.S. economy was in good shape in Q1 2020, the tactical assassination of Qasem Soleimani did not start another war in the Middle East nor did the impeachment proceedings cause any apparent political damage to his reelection campaign. The administration’s track record could have been far worse. Despite these advantages, however, Trump’s often erratic behavior prompted social media platforms to more restrictively apply content policies to public figures and politicians. Twitter started labelling Trump’s tweets as misinformation or removed tweets for violating Twitter’s content policies.
The researchers focused on a snapshot of both campaigns by analyzing Twitter data in the months of May and July. To avoid limitations or cognitive biases, the researchers took sample data from all trending topics within the U.S. They found a small number of trends solely focusing on elections while a large number of trends concerned general politics. COVID and the election was found to be a significant topic of discussion. However, the researchers found little evidence for trends directly discussing correlations between COVID and the election. Few example cases demonstrated hyper-partisan, authoritarian labelling to divide an in-group from an out-group. For example, the unrestricted proliferation of baseless conspiracy claims against the Democratic party in conjunction with misinformation, as seen below:
Other examples appeared to offer evidence but misunderstood it. Therefore shifting responsibilities away from the administration:
The majority of these hyper-partisan examples played out on the conservative end of the political spectrum. Democrats were found to capitalise on fewer opportunities to link administration failures to mitigate COVID with the election because Democrats treated finding a scalable policy solution as a serious health issue not to be trifled with. This imbalance between the two political campaigns created a further polarization of the issues: Democrats moving campaign activity online was used by Republicans as further ‘evidence’ for a conspiracy. Social media users reacted to this behavior by retracting support for both candidates. Anti-Biden content dropped as well while Trump remained at a consistent negative level. Trump, however, generated twice as much consistent traffic, which drove more voter attention to his campaign. Despite consistent criticism of the administration’s handling of the pandemic, the negative sentiment towards Trump did not create tangible support for Biden. And visibility can also be an indicator of success in the election. As the incumbent, Trump has the advantage over Biden. The researchers therefore conclude that a hyper-partisan narrative surrounding COVID and elections have been successful in using COVID as a political weapon to undermine the solutions-oriented approach driven by the Democratic party, which further entrenched both political camps at extreme ends making this election even more polarized. In summary, it can be argued that Republicans and Trump utilized COVID as a means for political gains. Democrats on the other side focused more on the issue of crisis management, which was spun by conservatives into a polarised partisan attack outside of scientific realities.