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Article • 08/03/2024

Presidential Campaign Communications Strategy: Findings from Signal AI’s U.S. Elections Index

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Update: Check out the latest findings from the Elections Index for March here!

By Dan Gaynor, Head of Strategic Solutions at Signal AI

On the heels of Trump ransacking through Super Tuesday and Biden’s resurgent State of the Union address, the 2024 presidential horse race is at a full sprint. 

The déjà vu rematch between former President Donald Trump and incumbent President Joe Biden will be determined by the savviest communications strategy–and the way candidates deliver it. 

Politics is all about sway: churning out enough messaging, knocking on enough doors, and building enough coalitions to eke out a majority of votes. But unlike swing voters, data is objective—it can’t be swayed. That’s why, this week, Signal AI launched the 2024 U.S. Elections Media Tracking Index. 

The Elections Index distills the media conversation surrounding the U.S. election into digestible insights. In this article, using data from the live U.S. Elections tracker, we pulled the most interesting findings for February. We’ll continue to update with new insights as the campaign progresses throughout the year.

Here’s what we found:

  • 1. While it may feel like everyone’s talking about President Biden’s age, the data says that the Republican party was the target of way more discussions about Fitness for Office. Trump and the GOP received more of a spotlight–and more negative coverage–on the topic than Biden and the Democrats.
  • 2. If the MAGA movement is indeed rising again, it is at the cost of turning off mainstream Americans: coverage of Republicans negative sentiment score was 2x as high as Democrats.
  • 3. The primary topic covered was Security, amassing over 4x the mentions of all other topics combined. But amid the Israel-Hamas conflict, the topic of Security was more polarized for Democrats than for Republicans. 
  • 4. And on that note: while domestic politics usually dominate an election year, the story is quite different this time around. With Ukraine and Israel at the forefront of fraught budget battles on the floor of Congress, it’s no surprise that Foreign Policy received nearly 2x the media coverage than Border Control and National Security combined.

Republican Party receives 73% Share of Voice on ‘Fitness for Office,’ and 5% more coverage than Democrats overall

Chart on Share of Voice and media coverage for Republicans v Democrats

With all respect to Dean Phillips, it makes sense that Republicans–who at least had a quasi-competitive primary–earned about 5% more coverage than Democrats. 

But at a time when it seems like even your septuagenarian uncle thinks 81-year-old Biden is too old for the Oval Office, our data reveals something fascinating: reality doesn’t match the truth. In fact, the Republican party stood out in discussions around Fitness for Office, with a 73% SoV. 

Our Elections Index defines the theme of Fitness For Office as debates involving legal concerns such as corruption, financial misconduct, and election interference, as well as personal qualifications like mental aptitude for holding office.

Republicans lead with a net negative sentiment score 2x as high as Democrats

Chart on Republicans receive negative net sentiment score twice as high as Democrats

Although both candidates received overwhelmingly negative coverage, Republicans led with a net negative sentiment score almost twice as high as Democrats.

In February, Democrats sustained a level of negative coverage consistent with the previous month. Meanwhile, Republicans witnessed a substantial surge in negative attention–driven by bumps to Trump like his impending criminal court cases, updates on his removal from the ballot, and campaign funding efforts saturating the media.

Democrats fared better but didn’t skirt through the winter unscathed. The President always takes the blame or credit for economic performance, and that’s what the data showed: Biden and Democrats received more coverage (60%) on discussions around The Economy.

Discussions concerning Democrats’ approach to Security consistently exhibited higher polarization–a lot of folks for and against it– compared to those discussing Republicans’ approaches.

Bottom line: both parties grappling with prevalent negative coverage across all facets of election discourse, Republicans consistently received more negative coverage than Democrats.

Drill Down into Highly Polarized and High-Impact Topics

Security (Immigration, Border Control, & Foreign Policy) amassed 4x the mentions of all other topics combined

Ukraine. Israel. Migrants. No surprise that the primary focus in February was security, amassing over four times the mentions of all other topics combined.

Chart on news coverage of key political topics.png

Trump may want to draw a contrast with Biden on national security, but it’s a steep hill to climb. While Democrats maintained a consistent level of negative coverage on this topic from January to February, Republicans experienced a noticeable increase in negative media attention.

Trump received a net negative sentiment score 14 times higher than Biden.

It’s worth noting that Fox and Co. haven’t turned against their favored fella – most of the coverage (74%) on Trump was from center to left-leaning sources.

Immigration & Border Control

State by State coverage and share of voice for Biden v Trump

In February, both candidates visited the U.S.-Mexico border in what the New York Times called a “split screen” and a “compulsory bit of political theater” as the immigration debate became more deeply polarized. 

It’s interesting to note that Trump’s campaigning at the border seemingly aligns with a push for more funding – notably meeting with influential figures like Elon Musk for donations. The Times reports, “If [Elon Musk] does get behind Mr. Trump, his views about immigration will have been a significant motivator.”

Foreign Policy received 2x the media coverage than Border Control and National Security combined

chart on Share of Voice mentions for Security and Polarization

Security discourse is predominantly driven by foreign policy for both political parties, with the most divisive issue being diplomacy commanding a 22% share of voice, followed by tariffs and international trade (both approx. 1% SoV), and geopolitical risk (22% SoV).

Historically, foreign policy has not been a deciding factor in American elections, but a recent AP-NORC poll shows that this issue is gaining prominence in the minds of voters. With several concurrent wars happening, voters are looking to both presidential candidates to speak with a vision of international policies and U.S. intervention strategy for both the Ukraine-Russia war and Israel.

The former Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, President Biden is emphasizing foreign policy as a differentiator, carefully managing the narrative on subjects like the war in Ukraine and his stance on Israel’s actions in Gaza. Biden explicitly links global democratic stability to American leadership, stating in an October speech that,  “American leadership is what holds the world together.”

For Biden, defending democracy–at home and abroad–will be core to his legacy.  But it is increasingly tricky to balance the art of real-world diplomacy with the bullfight of presidential campaigning, particularly as foreign policy takes the forefront. To wit, there are emerging factions of “uncommitted” voters like those seen on Super Tuesday in Minnesota. If activists are successful in converting swing voters with their message of disdain for Biden’s approach to Israel and the war in Gaza, it could diminish swing state turnout.

Conversely, Trump adopts a resolute nationalist stance, diverging sharply from Biden’s vision of the U.S. as a global peacekeeper. Trump’s recent doubling-down on his reluctance to protect NATO member states who fail to meet defense spending targets – coupled with a seemingly cavalier attitude towards a potential Russian attack on Europe – underscores his steadfast nationalist worldview. 

The Economy

For both candidates, the topic of the economy is the one that received the least negative attention. Perhaps because, as reported by the Associated Press, the economy is gradually improving, with threats of a recession minimizing and forecasts trending upwards. 

Our Elections Index defines the theme of Economy to cover an extensive array of economic indicators and policy measures that affect both national and international economic landscapes, such as economic growth, employment rates, inflation, trade dynamics, and fiscal and monetary policies, along with sustainability considerations pertinent to climate change and energy.

Tariffs & International Trade

For more context on data from the Republican party, Trump vowed on the campaign trail to escalate the trade war initiated during his first term as President, promising to enact a 10% tariff on all imports to the United States. He also vowed to implement a 60% tariff specifically on Chinese goods. 

This could impact foreign policy and retaliatory actions globally, leading to a contagion of economic countermeasures on a global scale. 

Analysts suggest that a prolonged trade war could expand certain areas of U.S. manufacturing. However, they also caution that such a move would come at a significant cost for consumers who are already grappling with inflation.

New numbers came out in February, showing that the U.S. goods deficit with China in 2023 had reached its lowest annual level since at least 2010 (other sources say 2003). That takes away a talking point for the challenger, as Donald Trump has often used the goods deficit with China as a metric of the United States’ dependency on China. As reported by Bloomberg, “By Trump’s favorite metric, Biden is winning the US-China trade war that Trump put at the center of his presidency.”

For the Democratic party, polarization on the topic of tariffs is very likely related to the World Trade Organization, in anticipation of the 13th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC13), held from 26 February to 2 March.

Where to go from here?

Trump’s entry into politics has generated a key, persistent question: can we trust polls? The time-honored tactic of surveying citizens appears to be especially fallible when The Donald enters the horse race. 

That’s where this Election Index steps in. This dashboard, updating regularly, offers an objective and agile view of who is winning and losing the battle for America’s soul. 

There are numerous insights you can pull from it: the size of the conversation around a candidate or party; the timeline of spikes and lulls in coverage; and the sentiment on an individual storyline (like foreign policy) or a sub-topic (like diplomacy). 

This means the dashboard doesn’t act like a weathervane, giving high-falutin takeaways on 10,000-foot-high topics like “the economy.” It’s more like a microscope: powered by our AI, we can double-click into key storylines. For example, within Fitness for Office, we are tracking individuals or topics like tax avoidance, fraud, corruption, financial crime, misconduct, mental decline, and beyond.

Take a spin through it. It offers a real-time, objective mirror of the election captivating the entire planet. The Election Index automatically visualizes how Biden vs. Trump (and Democrats vs. the GOP) are truly resonating with key topics that will turn the tide of voters in key states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and beyond.

We’re still several months from Election Day, but so far, the takeaway is clear: each party has strengths to lean on and weaknesses to shore up; each candidate has personal credit to claim and personal attacks that are effective; and each week, the narrative shifts like a stormy ocean.

Using this data, both Biden and Trump can craft more compelling stories about why they deserve to be Commander-in-Chief.

Our team harnesses AI to deliver actionable insights that answer big business questions. Schedule a demo with us to learn more.

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