The vast majority of the political conversation is centered around what politicians are saying—in their speeches, their tweets, and their ads. We care passionately about what is in the New York Times or trending on Twitter, but the output is only part of the equation. The relevant question isn’t what politicians are saying, it’s what voters are hearing. In our fucked up, Facebook-fueled media morass those are often two very different things.
As part of our PollerCoaster series, Crooked Media worked with Change Research to conduct a poll that tried to answer that very question—what are voters hearing and where are they hearing it as they make their 2020 decisions.
The poll which was conducted October 23-24 by surveying 1,125 likely voters nationwide, offers a fascinating window into which stories are breaking through to which voters and reveals some really disturbing insights into our broken information ecosystem.
We didn’t do this poll to see who was winning the race. We are drowning in a flood of polling data. Each new poll brings the possibility of doom or the slightly reassuring feeling that nothing has changed (as long as the polls aren’t wrong). You need that rush, we need that rush—so, of course, we asked people who they were going to vote for.
No need for doom from this poll at least. It was in line with the average of polls—Biden leads 51-43 with only two percent undecided. Fifty-seven percent say they’ve already voted and Biden leads among that group 62-34.
Why It Matters
When I worked for President Obama, our polls often asked voters if what they heard recently about Obama was positive or negative. This was our way to determine how we were faring in the message wars. We viewed it as a crucial measure, because it was often a leading indicator of Obama’s political situation. This question is never more important than in the final stretch of the campaign. It indicates whether a candidate is closing with momentum or on the defensive.
When I think about the signs I missed in 2016, I often think about how the intensely disproportionate focus on Jim Comey’s announcement of a fake email investigation meant that voters were mostly hearing negative information about Hillary Clinton as they made their final decisions. According to the exit polls, Trump won the voters in Wisconsin that decided the election in the last week by 29 points. In Pennsylvania, he won those voters 54-37.
How a campaign closes matters. A lot.
Biden is Winning the Message War
Voters of all stripes are paying very close attention to this election. More than nine in 10 voters say they’re following the news at least somewhat closely and 69 percent say they’re following it very closely, compared to 47 percent who do when there’s no election. Biden voters are paying closer attention than Trump voters—75 percent of Biden voters are following it very closely compared to 65 percent of Trump voters. This is potentially a positive sign of Democratic enthusiasm.
Voters report hearing mostly positive things about Biden (52-31) and overwhelmingly negative information about Trump (20-68). It’s comforting when polling validates our sense of reality. In the last few weeks, Trump has lost two debates, contracted COVID out of sheer stupidity, and generally acted like a lunatic. It’s nice to know that is breaking through—57 percent of undecided and third party voters report hearing mostly negative information about Trump.
Biden’s mostly positive coverage has come amidst a media obsession with his position on court expansion and Trump and his media allies putting a ton of energy behind a false conspiracy theory involving the business dealings of Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
What Voters are Hearing
The poll asked voters whether they had heard “a lot” or “a decent amount” about a series of news stories and recent events in politics, international affairs, sports, and popular culture. The goal was to see which stories were breaking through to the public and which remained the province of the political obsessives on Twitter and cable. More than 80 percent of espondents heard the following stories “a lot” or “a decent amount”:
- The Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett;
- The October 22 presidential debate;
- Record early voting turnout; and
- A new spike in COVID-19 cases around the country
Republicans had hoped that a focus on the Supreme Court right before the election would help their flagging campaign. No such luck—48 percent of voters said that the stories about the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett made them feel more negative about Trump compared to only 25 percent for Biden. Stories about the new spike in COVID cases made 53 percent of all voters and 44 percent of the undecided/third party voters feel more negative about Trump.
TL;DR: Voters are paying a ton of attention to the news and the issues they are hearing the most about make them like Trump less. That could change in the last week, but it is not good news for the President.
Fox is Terrible
One of the goals of the poll was to explore the role Fox News plays in spreading misinformation and whether that misinformation is breaking through to the public. This won’t surprise you, but Fox News is a cancer on American democracy and everyone who works there should be ashamed (except most of them aren’t capable of shame).
The poll compared two groups of Republicans: those that report getting most of their news from Fox and those who don’t. The Fox News watchers are much more engaged news consumers—76 percent of them report following the news very closely in the last couple of months, while only 43 percent of the non-Fox Republicans report the same.
On nearly every issue in the poll, more Fox Republicans reported hearing about “a lot” or a “decent amount” about the news than their counterparts. For example, 14 percent more Fox watchers heard “a lot” or “decent” amount about the Supreme Court confirmation; 10 percent more on the recent debate; eight percent more on the spike in early voting etc… This dynamic was true for every issue we polled EXCEPT for the bad stories about Trump. More of the less engaged, non-Fox watching Republicans heard about:
- Trump’s Chinese Bank Account;
- Trump saying “lock them up” about Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer; and
- Donald Trump calling Dr. Anthony Fauci “a disaster.”
The opposite was true of bad stories about Biden—91 percent of Fox viewers heard about Hunter Biden’s business dealings compared to 73 percent of the non-Fox Republicans.
This poll makes it very clear that the folks that run Fox News are not journalists; they are propagandists whose only desire is to help re-elect Donald Trump. They are very deliberately not sharing negative information about Trump with their viewers and they are very deliberately pushing out bad, often false, information about Biden.
This goes far beyond Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and the rest of the white nationalists in prime time. These findings are an indictment of everyone who works there including Brett Baier, Chris Wallace, Martha McCallum, and the rest of the faux journalists that still garner invites on the Washington, DC, cocktail party circuit.
Republicans have very Different Media Diets
It is typical of journalists to complain about partisan media bubbles as if Republicans and Democrats are equally cocooned.
This is both-sides bullshit.
Our poll shows that Republicans mostly live in a right-wing media bubble. Democrats don’t. By and large, Republicans are insulated from bad news about Trump because their media diet is much more explicitly partisan. Democrats consume much more traditional media and are therefore more aware of more information including negative information about their candidate. According to the poll, 62 percent of Trump voters get most of their news from Fox News. Biden voters, on the hand, consume a much wider array of information. More of them watch national network news (61-26), read print newspapers (26-11), and watch local TV news (48-36). This is why 54 percent of Biden voters were aware of the allegations about Hunter Biden and only 19 percent of Trump voters were aware of Trump’s secret Chinese bank account.
As we head into the final six days, this poll shows that Biden is winning the messaging war despite having fewer weapons. After the election, one of the top priorities for progressives needs to be figuring out how to fight back against the Republican propaganda machine. The pandemic that Trump failed to prepare for and respond to is the number one issue in this campaign. It is such an all consuming issue that it has been impossible for the massive right-wing media machine to change the subject to the trivia of their choice. The race will be won or lost on COVID. But in future elections, the ability of Republicans to dictate the issue terrain could be more decisive—as it may have been in 2016. It is not a risk we can afford to take.
Democrats don’t need or want a Fox News. If Trump loses, there is an argument to make that Fox will be largely responsible, by pickling the brains of Trump and everyone around him to the point that they lost touch with reality. In the long run, Democrats need a robust progressive media infrastructure to get out our message on our terms. Unlike Republicans, our goal should not be to delegitimize or replace traditional media. It is to complement it. This is why Jon Lovett, Tommy Vietor, and Jon Favreau started Crooked Media. The need for outlets like Crooked is going to be even greater if Biden wins. But that’s something we can (hopefully) focus on next week.