Tracking the Tone of the Campaign

Written by Lisa Singh, Stuart Soroka, Michael Traugott and Frank Newport as a part of the Gallup Working Group.

It’s an election year in America, and with that comes an endless string of media coverage of the political campaigns. If you are like 70% to 80% of Americans over the past 12 weeks, you’ve read, seen or heard some information about the top two presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, on any given day.

These are the findings from an ongoing research collaboration between Gallup, the University of Michigan and Georgetown University. Since July 11, 2016 Gallup has asked 500 respondents per night what they have read, seen or heard about Clinton or Trump that day. The resulting data include open-ended responses from over 30,000 Americans thus far.

Content analyses of these open-ended responses offer a unique picture of campaign dynamics.  The responses capture whatever respondents remember hearing about the candidates over the previous few days from traditional media, social media, or friends and family. As Gallup points out in the article above, results from this project are noteworthy because while most survey research tracks Americans’ opinions on candidates leading up to an election, this study looks directly at the information the public absorbs, on a daily basis.

Tracking the ‘Tone’ of What Americans Have Read, Seen or Heard

In this blog post, we offer some supplementary analysis, focusing on the tone of responses to the “read, seen or heard” question.  Positive and negative tone (or sentiment) are captured using the Lexicoder Sentiment Dictionary, run in Lexicoder.  The Lexicoder Sentiment Dictionary includes roughly 6,000 positive or negative words.  We count the frequency of both, and produce a measure of tone that is the % positive words – % negative words, for every response, from every respondent.

Taking the average tone of responses daily provides insight into the content that American citizens are receiving (and remembering) during the campaign.  In this analysis, we focus on measures of “candidate advantage,” where “Clinton advantage” is the gap between the tone of responses to the “read, seen or heard” question about Clinton, and the tone of responses to the “read, seen or heard” question about Trump.  Positive values reflect a systematic advantage for Clinton; that is, a tendency for recalled information about Clinton to be more positive than recalled information about Trump.  Negative values reflect the opposite.

As would be expected, when we look at partisanship, Republicans have more a net positive assessment for Trump. This is particularly true in the first weeks of September.  Democrats show a similar tendency in that they have more net positive assessments for Clinton.  That said, the first few weeks of September show, at best, a very weak advantage for Clinton among Democrats.  During the early weeks of September, Democrats’ recalled news was not markedly more positive for Clinton than it was for Trump.  ‘Read, seen or heard’ comments from Democrats even turned to Trump’s advantage in the period from September 16th to 18th, before trending more positive towards Clinton again.  This shift from Democrats followed concerns about Clinton’s health, but it also (and relatedly) reduced mentions of emails. This trend continued after the recent bombings in New York and New Jersey became prominent. And then came her performance in the debate.  All of this coverage led to a steady increase in Clinton’s advantage among Democrats.

figure_cand_tone_daily_clinton_sept29

 

For Republicans, the picture is nearly the opposite.  The gap between recalled information about Trump and recalled information about Clinton was striking through the first few weeks of September.  While Democrats did not recall information favorable to Clinton, Republicans clearly recalled information favorable to Trump.  But responses started to shift in the middle of the month and the ‘Trump Advantage’ in the tone of recalled information from Republicans has continued to fall since the first debate.

figure_cand_tone_daily_trump_sept29-1

What do these findings suggest about the presidential campaign thus far?  While these results do not capture vote intentions, nor are they direct assessments of the candidates, these data do give us a unique sense for the information that voters remember.  Whether shifts in ‘read, seen or heard’ mentions are predictive of attitudes towards the candidates remains to be seen.  Exploring this possibility is one objective of the ongoing project.

Related Article: After the Debate, Trump is still dominating news coverage. But Clinton is getting the good press. The Washington Post.


The Georgetown team that supports this project also includes Chris Kirov, and Yanan Zhu.

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