Category Archives: Student Experiences

Exploring the Tone of the 2016 Campaign

By undergraduate students Megan Bayagich, Laura Cohen, Lauren Farfel, Andrew Krowitz, Emily Kuchman, Sarah Lindenberg, Natalie Sochacki, and Hannah Suh, and their professor Stuart Soroka, all from the University of Michigan.


The 2016 election campaign seems to many to have been one of the most negative campaigns in recent history. Our exploration of negativity in the campaign – focused on debate transcripts and Facebook-distributed news content – begins with the following observations.

Since the advent of the first radio-broadcasted debate in 1948, debates have become a staple in the presidential campaign process.  They are an opportunity for voters to see candidates’ debate policies and reply to attacks in real-time. Just as importantly, candidates use their time to establish a public persona to which viewers can feel attracted and connected.

Research has accordingly explored the effects of debates on voter preferences and behavior. Issue knowledge has been found to increase with debate viewership, as well as knowledge of candidates’ policy preferences. Debates also have an agenda-setting effect, as the issues discussed in debates then tend to be considered more important by viewers. Additionally, there is tentative support for debate influence on voter preferences, particularly for independent and nonpartisan viewers. While debate content might not alter the preferences of strong partisans, it may affect a significant percentage of the population who is unsure in its voting decision. (For a review of the literature on debates effects, see Benoit, Hansen, & Verser, 2003).

Of course, the impact of debates comes not just from watching them but also from the news that follows. The media’s power to determine the content that is seen and how it is presented can have significant consequences. The literatures on agenda setting, priming, and framing make clear the way in which media shape our political reality. And studies have found that media’s coverage of debates can alter the public’s perception of debate content and their attitudes toward candidates. (See, for instance, Hwang, Gotlieb, Nah & McLeod 2006, Fridkin, Kenney, Gershon & Woodall 2008.)

This is true not just for traditional media, but for social media as well. As noted by the Pew Research Center, “…44% of U.S. adults reported having learned about the 2016 presidential election in the past week from social media, outpacing both local and national print newspapers.” Social media has become a valuable tool for the public to gather news throughout election cycles, with 61% of millennials getting political news from Facebook in a given week versus 37% who receive it from local TV. The significance of news disseminated through Facebook continues to increase.

It is in this context that we explore the nature of the content and coverage of the presidential debates of 2016.  Over the course of a term-long seminar exploring media coverage surrounding the 2016 presidential election, we became interested in measuring fluctuations in negativity across the last 40 years of presidential debates, with a specific emphasis on the 2016 debates. We simultaneously were interested in the tone of media coverage over the election cycle, examined through media outlets’ Facebook posts.

To test these hypotheses, we compiled and coded debate transcripts from presidential debates between 1976 and 2016. We estimated “tone” using computer-automated analyses. Using the Lexicoder Sentiment Dictionary (LSD) we counted the number of positive and negative words across all debates. We then ran the same test over news articles posted on Facebook during the election cycle, taken news feeds of main media outlets including ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, and FOX. (Facebook data are drawn from Martinchek 2016.)

We begin with a simple measure of the volume of tone, or “sentiment,” in debates.  Figure 1 shows the total amount of sentiment – the total number of positive and negative words combined, as a percentage of all words – in all statements made by each in candidate across all debates.  In contrast with what some may expect, the 2016 debates were not particularly emotion-laden when compared to past cycles. From 1976 through to 2016, roughy 6.9% of the words said during debates are included in our sentiment dictionary. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s speeches were essentially on par with this average; neither reached the peak of 8% (like 2004) or the low of 6% (like 2012).

Figure 1: Total Sentiment in Debates, 1976-2016

Figure 2 shows the percent of all sentiment words that were negative (to be clear: negative words as a percent of all sentiment words), and here we see some interesting differences.  Negativity from Democratic candidates has not fluctuated very much over time. The average percent of negative sentiment words for Democrats is 33.6%.  Even so, Hillary Clinton’s debate speeches showed relatively high levels of negativity, at 40.2%. Indeed, Clinton was the only Democratic candidate other than Mondale to express sentiment that is more than 40% negative.

Figure 2: Negativity in Debate Speeches, By Political Party, 1976-2016

Clinton’s negativity pales in comparison with Trump’s, however.  Figure 2 makes clear the large jump in negativity for Donald Trump in comparison with past candidates. For the first time in 32 years, sentiment-laden words used by Trump are nearly 50% negative – a level similar to Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Indeed, when we look at negative words as a proportion of all words, not just words in the sentiment dictionary, it seems that nearly every one in ten words uttered by Trump during the debates was negative.

The 2016 debates thus appear to be markedly more negative than most past debates. To what extent is the tone of debate content reflected in news coverage? Does negative speech in debates produce news coverage reflecting similar degrees of negativity?  Figure 3 explores this question, illustrating negativity (again, negative words as a proportion of all sentiment words) in the text of all Facebook posts concerning either Trump or Clinton, as distributed by five major news networks.

What stands out most in Figure 3 are the differences across networks: ABC, CNN, and NBC show higher negativity for Trump-related posts, while Fox shows higher negativity for Clinton-related posts.  CBS posts reflect a more neutral position.

Figure 3: Negativity in Facebook News Postings by Major Broadcasters, By Candidate, 2016

Clearly, political news content varies greatly across news sources. Trump’s expressed negativity in debates (and perhaps in campaign communications more generally) does not necessarily translate to more negative news content, at least by these measures. For instance: even as Trump is expressing more negative sentiment than Clinton, coverage in Fox is more positive towards Trump.  Of course, news coverage isn’t (and shouldn’t be) just a reflection of what candidates say. But these make clear that the tone of coverage for candidates needn’t be in line with the sentiment expressed by those candidates.  Expressing negative sentiment can produce negative coverage, or positive coverage, or (as Figure 3 suggests), both.

This much is clear: in line with our expectations, the 2016 presidential debates were among the most negative of all US presidential debates.  The same seems true of the campaigns, or at least the candidates’ stump speeches, more generally.  Although there was a good deal of negativity during debates, however, the tone of news coverage varied across sources.  Depending on citizens’ news source, even as candidates seem to have focused on negative themes, this may or may not have been a fundamentally negative campaign cycle. For those interested in the “tone” of political debate, our results highlight the importance of considering both politicians’ rhetoric, and the mass-mediated political debate that reaches citizens.

 


This article was co-authored by U-M capstone Communication Studies 463 class of 2016, which took place during the fall election campaign. Class readings and discussion focused on the campaign, and the class found themselves asking questions about the “tone” of the 2016 debates, and the campaign more generally. Using their professor Stuart Soroka as a data manager/research assistant, students looked for answers to some of their questions about the degree of negativity in the 2016 campaign.

 


The importance of student research opportunities to Janie Velencia’s career in elections and research

Developed by Lauren Guggenheim in coordination with Janie Velencia.

This is a post in a series about student involvement in research projects in the Center for Political Studies (CPS). Here, we profile Janie Velencia, whose work on the Constituency-Level Elections Archive (CLEA) helped influence her career path in political research.

Velencia_200As an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, Xhensila (Janie) Valencia was interested in participating in the University’s Undergraduate Student Research Opportunity Program (UROP). Through the program, she sought a research project that would allow her to build work experience. “I interviewed for several interesting projects, but CLEA fit best with my majors in political science and international studies and sounded the most promising in terms translating into work skills,” she says.  She could not have guessed at the time how helpful CLEA would be in that regard.

CLEA is a repository of detailed results from lower house elections from around the world. CLEA provides opportunities for students to be involved at all stages of the data collection process, providing valuable experience and training for them. Working on research projects can be an excellent way for students to explore whether they would like to further their career in research and academia. Many of CLEA’s alumni have gone on to attend graduate school and obtain research-oriented jobs.

Janie remembers her most interesting work with CLEA data: “I’m originally from Albania and immigrated to Michigan with my family at the age of 5, so when I saw that there was a data file on Albania, I immediately volunteered for it” she says.  Because she is fluent in Albanian, and is familiar with its political history, she found that file interesting and easier to work with than some of the others, specifically because she could recognize the names of parties in both English and Albanian without having to overcome some of the usual language barriers that sometimes arise when working with the data.

She also found that focusing on the data from specific countries allowed her to learn interesting things about the political history and mood of a country. In particular, Poland stood out to her because they went from having few parties after the fall of communism to many parties, including the Beer Lover’s Party, whose platform was to promote cultural beer drinking in the country.

Janie credits her work with CLEA for helping her land an internship in the U.S. Senate, and later a job at a company called Congressional Quarterly / Roll Call, a subsidiary of the Economist Group that provides congressional research and reporting to subscribers. She was told that it was specifically her work with CLEA that made her uniquely qualified for the researcher position right out of college. She had been working there for about a year and a half when an opportunity arose for a new position that would allow her not only to work with data, but also to broaden her experiences to interpret the data and write about her results.

Currently, she works at Huffington Post as an editor for a team called HuffPost Pollster where she participates in tracking and aggregating political polls in the U.S., including all the races leading to the 2016 election. She writes articles based on poll results and contributes to a weekly polling newsletter. She believes her CLEA training also helped her attain this job.

Janie sees many parallels between her current position and her work with CLEA. “I think it’s vital to provide free accessible information about elections and public opinion for both research purposes and the public good.” She has allowed the notion to carry her into her current job. “Being able to contribute in a way that makes information accessible to the public, is what I do now, and it is also one of the great things about CLEA,” she added. Being cited by news outlets for her research is both exciting for her and satisfying because it means that the public is directly benefiting from data she helped collect and analyze.

How research experience influenced a career in political science: the case of Josue Gomez and CLEA

Developed by Katie Brown and Josue Gomez.

This is the first post in a series about students working on research projects in the Center for Political Studies (CPS). Here, we profile Josue Gomez, whose work on the Constituency-Level Elections Archive (CLEA) helped influence his career path in political science.

blog26_1Josue Gomez was raised in a farming community in southern Idaho, the son of a Mexican-American farm worker. The current debate on immigration policy, especially the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, piqued his interest in politics. He enrolled at Boise State University — the first in his family to attend college — and majored in political science. As part of the McNair Scholars program supporting under-represented students, Josue was required to complete a summer research program prior to graduating. Josue and his advisor, Ross Burkhart, identified the University of Michigan as a good place to apply, and Josue was accepted as part of the Student Research Opportunity Program (SROP) at Michigan. Through the SROP program, he joined the Constituency-Level Elections Archive (CLEA) project as a research assistant in the Summer of 2012.

CLEA is a repository of detailed election results from around the world which collects outcomes from lower house elections. CLEA provides opportunities for students to be involved at all stages of the data collection process, providing valuable experience and training for them.  Working on research projects can be an excellent way for students to explore whether they would like to further their career in research and academia. Many of CLEA’s alumni have gone on to attend graduate school and obtained research-oriented jobs.

As part of his responsibilities on the CLEA project, Josue was assigned to work on Latin American and a few European countries. Given his fluency in Spanish and natural inclination to learn about these countries, Josue grew a strong connection to the project. Among the countries he was assigned to work on, he was encouraged to choose one to study in more depth. Chile was the largest country in Latin America that was not yet represented in CLEA, and Josue decided that it would be valuable for CLEA to include it.  As Josue studied the intricacies and results of elections in Chile, he became interested in a broader research agenda concerning political parties and democratization. Prior to the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinoche, Chile had held elections  After the dictatorship was removed, Chile began to hold elections again. In his studies, Josue began to wonder how relationships between parties and an old regime (in Chile’s case, the dictatorship) influence the performance of the parties in elections during and following the transition to democracy.

At the time, Josue was a senior at Boise State University. In his work on CLEA he identified what became a fundamental question for him: How do parties succeed in foundational elections? CLEA also helped him begin to answer this question.

As a McNair Scholar, Josue published a short article based on his work with CLEA. In the blog26_2paper, Josue lays out a spectrum of parties that exist in new democracies, in order to help understand why some parties are more successful than others. Focused on Latin America, Josue finds a relationship between party alignment in older regimes and success in new elections.

Josue notes that political scientists and other researchers are always looking for reliable data like that provided by CLEA. By examining the electoral rules and election results from countries around the world, researchers can discover what electoral systems work better in certain regions and in certain time frames, investigate how political parties developed or declined, and seek to understand whether and why the democratic experience is working or not.

Josue’s experience in building social science infrastructure and his own research skills in his work with CLEA laid the foundation for his McNair Scholars paper, and has also influenced his academic path.  The experience has led him to pursue a Ph.D.; he is currently enrolled as a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at The Ohio State University