New York Times READ

Presidential Election Word of Mouth Engagement Is High Again, and Less Negative than in 2016

Published by Engagement Labs October 30, 2020

● Biden Holds 20-Point Word of Mouth Sentiment Advantage
Republicans More Activist than Democrats, Especially on Social Media


Just before James Comey’s late October surprise about Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016, the two major party nominees were generating very negative conversation about themselves—particularly Donald Trump. This October, the Democrat again has the advantage in word-of-mouth sentiment, but the incumbent Republican President is enjoying higher levels of activism and advocacy from Republicans than Joe Biden is getting from Democrats.

In 2016, the 2016 candidates’ “net sentiment” stood at -53 for Trump and -29 for Clinton, based on subtracting negative from positive opinions about the candidates. Immediately after the October 28 James Comey letter, the conversation flipped for the first time in the campaign, with more negative for the Democratic (-46) than the Republican (-42) nominee—and the rest was history, as we described it in our widely reported post-election analysis.

Election Word of Mouth Sentiment vs 2016

This year, the two nominees are again in negative territory, but not as deeply negative as four years ago. Again, the Democrat, now Joe Biden, is again less negative (-7) than Donald Trump (-27). Absent another late surprise, it appears that Biden has a clear edge in the word of mouth sentiment battle, as we’ve seen for the last five months. Indeed, three weeks ago, Joe Biden briefly flipped into positive territory after the first Presidential debate, although he has since slipped back slightly to net-negative.

Net Sentiment About Presidential Candidates

The word of mouth trends for the candidates have been highly polarized in recent months as Republicans’ conversations have been consistently positive toward Trump and negative toward Biden, while the opposite has been true among Democrats.

One potentially important shift can be seen among independents who affiliate with neither major party. In September, word of mouth among independents was less negative for Trump than Biden, but now those conversations favor Biden by a 16-point margin.

Independents' Net Sentiment About Candidates

Overall conversation engagement in the elections is slightly lower this year than in 2016, with 33% talking each day about the elections compared to 37% then. One reason may be the reduced social contact people have due to the pandemic, cutting down on the chances to have these conversations outside of the home. And the other might well be a larger number of important things to be discussing including family health, children’s educational needs, and overall economic concerns.

How Many Talk Each Day About National Elections

Offline Word of Mouth is Bipartisan, But Social Media Leans Republican

Word-of-mouth conversations remain the most important way that Americans engage in the Presidential election. For each of the last three weeks ending October 25, an average of 37% have been talking at home about the election, 23% have talked face-to-face outside of the home—despite pandemic-related restrictions—and 23% have talked over the phone about the election.

Social media have been a factor, with 18% of Americans posting about the election, followed by 13% who have written private emails and messages, and 9% who have posted their opinions on news websites.

How Americans Are Engaged in 2020 Election - Election Engagement in October 2020

While members of both parties engage at similar levels in face-to-face word-of-mouth, Republicans are more engaged with the campaign and in election-related advocacy via social media. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to post opinions on social media, to post comments on news sites, and to display yard signs and bumper stickers.

Republicans are also more likely to engage in a variety of “activist” behaviors such as attending campaign events and protests. Democrats stand out in just one area—using a telephone to talk about the election. These patterns may be related to different responses to the pandemic—with Republicans more willing to attend real-world events while Democrats prefer virtual ones. But it also suggests that President Trump has been successful in driving enthusiasm among his key supporters.

Political independents lag partisans on almost every measure of engagement, which is typical of infrequent voters who are less committed to either side. Turnout among these low-involved voters will be a priority for the Biden camp in the last days of the campaign.

How Americans Are Engaged in 2020 Election - Election Conversation & Engagement by Political AffiliationPolitical conversations help to explain campaign momentum, as people respond the larger national campaign narrative, and they amplify the impact of that narrative among their friends and family. In 2016, conversation trends helped to demonstrate the shift in narrative in response to the Comey letter, even before it showed up in traditional opinion polls.

As of now, the narrative appears to be holding steady, with Biden enjoying less negative criticism than Donald Trump. However, the Trump campaign clearly has had success in activating its core supporters, who are more actively promoting their candidate online and in their front yards compared to Democrats. That enthusiasm gap probably would be valuable in a low turn-out election, but this year with half of last year’s total vote cast a week before Election Day, high levels of voter turnout is already a given, advantaging the Biden campaign and its superior word of mouth sentiment.


About Engagement Labs and the Study

Engagement Labs has a unique methodology that captures the word of mouth conversations of Americans – the true kitchen table things people talk about. Our data and method has found some notoriety after the 2016 campaign and was written up in the Clinton and Lanny Davis books as evidence of the impact of the Comey letter.

Engagement Labs measures offline conversations using an online survey about political candidates, issues and brands talked about “yesterday.” For this report, analysts focused on the offline conversations of representative national sample of people 18-69 years old. The study involves approximately 32,000 people surveyed per year (600 per week).

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