In the biggest week of news in the 2020 presidential campaign, one story dominated like no other: President Donald Trump contracting coronavirus.
According to The Breakthrough, a project from CNN, SSRS, the University of Michigan and Georgetown University tracking Americans’ recall of news about each of the presidential candidates, no topic and no word has overtaken all other news as coronavirus did about Trump in this week’s interviews.
Two other major news stories involving the President this week landed as the second and third most frequently used words: “debate” and “taxes.” “Hospital” landed in the fourth slot, and “positive” in the fifth, a word largely used in reference to his coronavirus test result. Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, publicly announced September 26, just three days before the week’s survey began fielding, did not land in the President’s top 20 words.
The data show a swift evolution in the topics mentioned in reference to the President over the last week. Mentions related to the Supreme Court peaked over the weekend, and were already fading by Monday, September 28. References to the debate, held the night of September 29, began to rise. And then coronavirus emerged as news broke on Thursday, September 30, that one of the President’s top aides, Hope Hicks, had tested positive for the virus, followed by news that the President and first lady Melania Trump had also tested positive, mentions of the virus tamped down all else by the end of interviewing on Sunday, October 4.
In those final days of interviewing after Trump’s diagnosis was made public, nearly 70% of respondents mentioned something about coronavirus when asked what they had seen, read or heard about the President lately.
For Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, the debate was also a dominant topic, mentioned by more than 300 respondents over the course of the week. But the President’s coronavirus diagnosis also impacted what Americans were hearing about Biden. “Coronavirus” was his second most frequently mentioned word this week, with “test” and “negative” landing in fifth and sixth place respectively. Early in the week, about 10% of respondents mentioned the topic of coronavirus when asked what they had heard, read or seen about Biden lately, that more than doubled to top 20% after Trump’s diagnosis.
The results also suggest the shift from debates to coronavirus may actually have decreased negative sentiment toward Trump in this week’s data, based on an analysis of the types of words used alongside mentions of each topic. Overall, the results find the sentiment expressed about the two candidates became slightly more positive for Biden and slightly more negative for Trump. Had the focus remained on the debates, however, the shift may have been more dramatic.
Mentions of coronavirus have a narrowly negative impact for Trump overall, but for the debate, negative associations for Trump among Democrats and independents far outweigh positive ones from Republicans, suggesting a sustained focus on that topic could have dampened Trump’s numbers further.
The results also suggest that this year’s first presidential debate appeared to have a more notably negative impact on sentiment than did the first debate in 2016. Overall, sentiment in mentions of the debate in the five days following the first matchup between Trump and Hillary Clinton was largely neutral for both candidates.
In this news-heavy week, the survey found new highs in the share of Americans saying they had heard, read or seen something about either candidate. Nearly nine in 10 had heard news about Trump (88%), with roughly 8 in 10 saying the same about Biden (82%).