Cutting Through the Noise and Narratives of the 2020 Election

Photo source: Joy Mayer. Poynter Institute. “How to make fair, accurate information stand out on social media during election week.”

One of the most contentious elections in this nation’s history is just around the corner and you may be, like many people, fatigued by politics in general. The news and commentary can be downright suffocating at times. You’ve probably gotten countless phone calls from national and state organizations affiliated with the two major parties, even after you’ve already voted early or by mail. It feels never-ending and it seems to only get more heated the longer it all drags on.

And as usually the case with politics, there has been a deluge of perspectives and narratives crafted and there’s only going to be more of them once the election is over. There is an incentive — whether it is monetary, political, or psychological — to believe certain stories about why elections or other events are happening the way they are. But for many citizens — including those not voting — the sheer volume of noise just makes them want to throw their hands up in the air and give up trying to understand what’s happening. While a lot of people are already primed to take to certain narratives because of their biases, many others wonder how much of all the political talk is useful information and what is just noise.

This article is not going to make big predictions about what is going to happen. It’s not useful, but more than that I believe it is more important to impart some advice to those who want to understand it all yet might be fatigued by the giant wall of political coverage. Perhaps perspective on the election without the political motives of media outlets, politicians, and interest groups is desired. I’ll do my best to provide that.

This is my third presidential election I have voted in, but it is the first since finishing grad school with a master’s in political science (concentration in political campaigning, though I want to do nonpartisan analysis with it for a career). With that and my experiences — both as an observer and being involved in politics — here are some pieces of advice I hope are helpful in cutting through a lot of the noise.

Big prognostications aren’t inherently bad. In fact, they can be quite useful and interesting. But there are some caveats to keep in mind. Sometimes, they are tainted by an outlet or media personality’s personal politics. I’ve personally heard people (and not just on TV, radio, etc.) many times either claim that Joe Biden would win in a landslide or that Donald Trump would be re-elected in a blowout. Almost always, that has been because one of those scenarios is what they want to happen. That doesn’t mean that neither of these cases won’t happen. Maybe it won’t even be a close election. Maybe the signs favoring Joe Biden are even more in his favor then it seems, or maybe there are even more “shy” Trump supporters that aren’t vocalizing their support than in 2016. But one should pause when they hear such predictions.

Grand proclamations don’t have to be forecasts of a blowout, however. For some pundits, there is potentially a lot at stake beyond simply whether they are correct. An accurate prediction may turn out to be very lucrative for one’s career prospects. Nate Silver, the editor-in-chief of the blog FiveThirtyEight, has been a famous name in statistical analysis in both politics and sports, but how did that come to be? In the 2012 election, Silver correctly predicted the winners of all 50 states and D.C., an incredible feat that catapulted his name to ubiquity in statistics. Something similar can happen for other pundits.

Sometimes, however, forecasters simply want to grab attention with their predictions or inflate their self-importance, and less because they want to do genuine analysis. Grand proclamations usually fail to truly account for how nuanced politics is, which is why it can be so difficult to predict many things.

On the part of politicians, they are arguably even more given to making grand, overly-generalized declarations. Every time a candidate wins the presidency, and a lot of times in other races, they will claim that the voters’ choice have given him or her a mandate to implement all of their policies, when that is never the case. Most voters do not agree with all of the policy positions of the candidate they voted for. Some voters are even reluctant to vote for one of the candidates.

2. Perspective rules just about everything in politics, particularly when people strongly identify with a particular label.

This can be party ID, ideological preference (though you might be surprised just how many voters don’t think about ideology or even understand what “conservative” or “liberal” really means), race, etc. That isn’t exactly news, but it sometimes to be somewhat forgotten. We also don’t realize just how much our biases and our identities color everything political until we really dig deep into voter psychology. A lot of voters, despite any grievances they may have against Biden and/or Trump, will be going along with their party’s candidate. As a couple of examples, partisans and ideologues will often make claims that these voters all “support Biden because they are socialists” or that they all “support Trump because they are racists” when neither is the case. It becomes quite predictable.

When you hear any sort of commentary about politics, particularly any that are very one-sided, one should look at who exactly is making the statements. That isn’t to say that all heavily biased commentary is useless, but it should give listeners and viewers pause.

3. For all of the surprises and crazy things that can happen in politics, much of it is still very predictable.

Incumbents often get re-elected at rates of over 80% and sometimes even 90% in a given election, regardless of the level of government we are talking about. Most voters are going to voter their party identification, and many third-party and non-party affiliated voters are going to choose either Biden or Trump. A lot of states are clearly going to go red or blue in the presidential election. The more invested a person’s identity is in their politics, the more likely they are to vote. All these and more results will not be surprising when the dust from the election settles, yet commentators may still cover these things as if they are shocking. (To be fair, however, regular observers are usually not going to be privy to what is predictable and what isn’t. Even so, pundits should at least make it known that these things are common occurrences to help people understand.)

4. (Recent) history has a tendency to repeat itself, but you have to look at just how similar it is.

A race in a given district does not happen in a vacuum. The recent history will give a lot of indication as to how the next election will play out. Was a U.S. House district won by less than 2 points difference (i.e., 2 percent of the vote) in 2016 and 2018? It’s very likely that it will happen again in 2020.

Still, the finer details need to be examined. Are the parties spending a similar amount of money on the race that they did before? Are they spending that money in a similar way? Is there a third-party or non-party candidate in 2020 when there wasn’t in 2016 or 2018? Is it a presidential or midterm election? Is there another prominent election on the battle (e.g. U.S. Senate)? Could there be a major county or city referendum on the ballot that might drive extra voters to the polls or even sway the opinions of voters who were already going to turn out? As usual, there’s a lot more to it all than just what is on the surface, but a lot of political commentary doesn’t truly delve into it all or only slightly touches on it. It mostly just touches on the surface level.

5. Every single race is different.

This may sound obvious, but we can all sometimes forget this. Even as more elections become nationalized (i.e., scrutinized in the context of presidential politics), campaigns live and die at the grassroots level. Split-ticket voting has been happening less often in the last decade or two than in years past, but it still happens. Some voters still look at their local and state-level races differently than they do the federal level.

Beyond that, campaigns have much different circumstances to contend with in crafting their strategies. There are different media markets, political compositions of electorates, voter turnout rates, local concerns, rural vs. urban divides, and more to contend with. All of these heavily shape the voter outreach of campaigns.

6. A lot of political commentary isn’t worthwhile.

I’ll admit that this is a lot more colored by my own perspective and my particular distaste for most political media coverage. We’ve already touched on some of the reasons why. But besides bias, many pundits themselves can’t figure out what political information is just noise and what actually needs to be discussed.

Polling is a perfect example for this. Not every poll is worth covering or even good. Some of them might be poorly sampled or not representative of the population they are polling. In some cases, they are flat-out fake. This does not stop these polls from being circulated by media personalities, political players, or regular citizens on social media — be it for ratings, attention, or to support their political side.

Another personal pet peeve of mine is the national presidential poll because it is almost completely useless. Why?

Political commentary is also heavily influenced by the desire and need for ratings. I emphasize “and” because it isn’t just that pundits want to receive attention. Media consumers’ behavior and the economic realities of journalism and punditry give commentators a lot of incentive to cover politics the way they do. There once was a time, decades ago, where there were only three TV channels (ABC, CBS, and NBC), along with some radio stations and newspapers, to get news or any sort of media entertainment. Because of this, news organizations could afford more and higher-quality reporting.

Now, there are hundreds upon hundreds of channels (many of which aren’t even politically oriented), tons of radio stations, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, national newspapers, and slowly dying local newspapers competing for eyes and ears. Over the last few decades, the long-standing news organizations have had to cut back on staff and time taken to report news. Consumers want their news right away even if the whole story isn’t clear, and many choose to go to outlets that cater to their political preferences. There’s a tendency for media to over-simplify things because many consumers aren’t interested or get bored in the minute details of analysis. Then there are also countless non-political programs to read/watch/listen to that compete with political media.

As a result, there has been a significant, negative impact on the quality of political commentary. As much as the state of the media is lamented, it is heavily influenced by its economic environment — something that is not often talked about in general.

7. The difference between winning and losing may not boil down to the issues, voter demographics, or even the candidates themselves.

Politics is far too intricate to constantly pare results down to these few things. A lot of it, however, is more obscure and most people outside of the political industry (and even some of those inside it) will not be privy to it. For example, how the candidate reaches out to voters matters considerably. What’s just as important as the content of the candidate’s message is who to disseminate the message to, what types of media to use (e.g. TV, radio, digital), where to message voters, how often you message them, and when in the election cycle they are messaged. Despite Hillary Clinton’s monumental advantage in fundraising in 2016, Donald Trump still won the election, and a lot of that had to do with how each candidate reached out to voters.

But as we already talked about, politicians are going to be looking for whatever overly-generalized description they can for why an election turned out the way they did. They have incentive to paint elections in a certain light. If Trump loses, will it because they were dissatisfied with his tenure as president? Or will there be the possibility of “fatal” mistakes in voter outreach on his campaign’s part?

8. Other races can affect each other as well, and not just in one direction.

As different as each race can be, they are not always independent of each other. There is often talk about how presidential and other high-level elections affect races further down the ballot, but there is also a reciprocal effect. A statewide measure on the ballot could make all the difference for a close U.S. Senate race, or tip the scales of how a state votes for president.

9. Loud voices are almost always a minority, but seem like they are much more numerous then they are.

This is perhaps one of the easiest things to forget, especially for me. The amplification of certain perspectives can make it seem like more people share it, and thus lend a possibly false sense of credibility to it. Dissenting voices get drowned out. Certain attitudes and beliefs can seem like the norm with how much coverage they get when they are actually a small proportion of the population. This is true of the Internet in general, especially in areas like sports or video games.

That’s a lot to read, I know. But they are some themes I consider critical to understanding what happens in this election, regardless of the results. Politics is far too intricate to come up with a clean, one- or two-sentence review of why it happened the way it did. It takes a lot more than one paragraph.

The point of all this is not to immediately dismiss any election commentary; rather, it is to give it a lot more scrutiny. A truly in-depth, accurate analysis takes a lot more time and effort to do. But there are many variables working against that which we should also be mindful of. Be wary of narratives, and give time for the dust to settle before making any big statements or reviews of how it all went down.

Senior Page Editor - Sayfie Review, Assistant Staff Writer - Ballotpedia (my views do not express those of my employers), M.A. in Political Science

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