The Correlation Between Media Coverage and the 2016 and 2020 Elections

(This is an essay I wrote for my Media and Modern Politics class. It analyzes the 2016 and 2020 elections and how televised media played a role in the outcome.)

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election, in hindsight, was one of the most exceptional and unorthodox elections in modern political history— and it wasn’t just because both nominees lacked substantial experience in the presidential realm (many of the past nominees have been incumbent presidents or vice presidents). According to Words That Matter, a book published in 2020 by several authors of varying political and technological backgrounds, there were a few key aspects that made this election so different. More specifically, it was the combination of two major factors: first, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were seen as two of the least-favorable presidential candidates in recent history, according to a Gallup poll. Trump received a 61 percent unfavorability score, compared to Clinton’s 52 percent— solidifying them as the worst and second worst in presidential polling history. In addition to this (and possibly because of this), the authors found that news coverage during the 2016 presidential campaign “was more negative than in previous presidential campaigns, consistent with these campaigns being the most unpopular nominees in polling history” (Bode et al. 22).

    Despite the unprecedented negativity surrounding the two front runners, 139 million American citizens still cast a ballot on Election Day, resulting in the highest influx of voters ever recorded in U.S. history— and as a result, President Donald Trump was sworn into office in January of 2017. And with more and more people turning to social media rather than print media to get their news, questions have been raised as to how influential these sources have been for the people that cast their ballots. How does the media process election information? And better yet, what information ultimately gets absorbed into the minds of registered voters? The authors of Words That Matter used five major datasets to help answer those questions. 

The first of the datasets was a Twitter Daily Random Sample database, which consisted of a random sampling of 5,000 tweets each day about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The information was collected from July of 2016 until Election Day. Through this sample, the authors were able to see what exact topics were being discussed about the two candidates by everyday people. Here, we can see that despite a number of topics skyrocketing to the forefront of public dialogue, Hillary Clinton’s historic “email scandal” reigned supreme.

The second dataset used was the Twitter Journalist Database, which included 1.97 million tweets posted about the candidates from over 930 influential journalists. Clinton’s email scandal consistently ranked near the top of this set as well.

The third dataset included a collection of over 40 thousand articles written by prestigious newspapers. Once again, the Clinton email scandal prevailed.

The fourth dataset, and possibly the most relevant dataset to this essay, was a compilation of telephone surveys conducted by Gallup, Inc., an American analytics and advisory company known for its worldwide public opinion polls. In this set, Gallup asked approximately 500 random people a set of two questions, everyday: “What specifically do you recall reading, hearing or seeing about Hillary Clinton in the last day or two?”, and “What specifically do you recall reading, hearing or seeing about Donald Trump in the last day or two?” The answers varied depending on the day, but by now one could guess the major answer recorded among those polled.

Based on all of these datasets, we can conclude that Hillary Clinton’s email scandal served as a sort of “Achilles heel” for her subsequent downfall in the 2016 election. We can also conclude that the frequency in which prestigious news organizations and prominent journalists covered the scandal influenced how important the scandal would become to everyday voters (whether that email scandal deserved to solidify Clinton’s loss in the election is another discussion entirely).

Now, if we travel four years into the future, we may be able to see some correlation between how the media played a major role in the final election results in the 2016 election versus the 2020 election. While the authors of Words That Matter released their book far in advance of the most current election, it is safe to assume that the data concluded in their research still applies today.

The 2020 campaign drew some parallels to the 2016 campaign in many ways— the most relevant being that towards the end of the election, both Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden had favorability ratings that consistently dipped below 50% (according to Gallup, Inc.). 

“The biggest thing that stood out to me with the 2020 election was how polarizing it was… many people didn’t seem happy with either candidate. Both the 2016 and 2020 elections were like this and seemed to let radical viewpoints flourish within the voting populace,” Savanna Judith, a Junior at Drake University said.

What may have been a defining factor in the 2020 election, however (and what many say led to Donald Trump’s defeat), was an increase of people voting not just for Joe Biden’s policies, but against Trump’s. 

“Women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community really influenced who I was going to vote for. I have a lot of friends and family who are in these groups, along with myself. I asked myself, ‘what candidate would benefit these groups the most after this next election?’”, Kim Bates, a Junior at Drake University said. 

Towards the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, and after the attack on the U.S. Capitol in January, his approval rating dipped lower than it had ever been in his term. Additionally, a record number of Americans polled (57%, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll), wanted Trump immediately removed from office for breaking the 25th amendment. And either by chance or by correlation, in the weeks that followed it seemed as though the only thing the media was reporting on was the attack.

“The biggest thing I remember hearing in the news about the election was the riots at the Capitol, and how so many people wanted [Trump] out of office after it happened,” Ander Johnson, a Junior at Drake University said. “I already had voted by then, but it kind of helped solidify my vote.”

The frequency of negative media coverage surrounding the candidates doesn’t seem to be the only influencing factor among registered voters. In a September 2020 poll by Gallup, Inc., 6 out of 10 people in the United States reported little or no trust in mass media. The influence of the media, as well as the topic of “fake news”, led to a widespread debate on whether or not certain media outlets could be trusted over others.

“I remember the vast amounts of times the truth was twisted, slander was supported, or the media was stifled during this recent election. Additionally, a great deal of information and misinformation followed the 2020 election,” Savanna Judith said. 

Judith also gave some input into how she ultimately decided who to vote for. 

“The most important thing to me when deciding to vote on a candidate was choosing one who was not going to stifle my identity and look to [make] a better tomorrow for everyone,” she said.

In addition to what the authors and the people I interviewed said about the media’s involvement in the election, I will also provide my own input. Much like my colleagues at Drake, some of the biggest things I remember about the 2020 election were the negative components of it. I vividly remember the intense media coverage of the capitol attack, as well as the constant dissection of false claims made by Trump. Similar to Savanna and Kim, I wanted to vote for a candidate that was interested in giving a voice to marginalized groups. I believe one of the biggest reasons why Joe Biden ultimately won the presidency was because a majority of the media covered Donald Trump in a negative light, thus furthering people’s negative opinions on him. Additionally, the book spends a significant amount of time discussing how middle and low engagement voters (those who don’t consume media as often) tend to be more susceptible to influence when they encounter political information. When groundbreaking news stories came out surrounding the capitol attacks, Trump’s demeanor during presidential debates, and his reaction to the COVID-19 health crisis, even the lowest-engaged voters found those stories hard to miss— simply because they were everywhere. I believe this could also have played a part in the final ballot numbers. 

Given that the media is one of the most influential players in who ultimately ends up in office, I believe we should be concerned about how the media will evolve in the next several years. Social media is rising fast in popularity, and with it lay numerous pin-triggers that, if crossed, could lead us down a path that may permanently change the way we are influenced by political media. I already see several concerning issues that come with media consumption— and at this time, I don’t think anyone has a concrete answer for how to combat these issues. Time will ultimately tell what route we end up taking.

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