Biden's Swing Voter Problem Isn't SCOTUS. It's the First Election Debate | Analysis

There's a magic circle humming away in the background of much of the election coverage. Many of the politicos' and journos' opinions are formed in cliquey conversations and driven by polling data—itself driven by the agenda of those same cliquey conversations. Those polling numbers, while worthy, ask voters questions on topics that already dominate the media/political conversation, not the conversations that non-wonks have. And, remarkable as it may seem, elections are decided by people who aren't political experts.

So, for a few weeks til the Big Day, we'll be running a tracker - but not of opinion polls. Instead, we'll be looking at what social media and online forums are talking about, the manner in which they are discussing it and the conclusions they are deriving, as ways of understanding which way the wind is blowing, and what President the world will get.

The numbers come from monitoring company Impact Social, which carries out a weekly tracker of social media sentiment analysis of 40,000 swing voters of every hue—from the disgruntled supporters of each party to the free thinkers who will vote but are still deciding. It is swing voters like this who will decide an unpredictable election.

This week, professional media conversations have circled around the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with obsessive discussions around her legacy and her replacement on the Supreme Court bench. Will it be decided by Trump before the election or by Biden after? What's the political balance that will emerge and define the long term policies? Does that bring abortion, healthcare and women's rights to the very forefront of the conversation?

The thing is, in electoral terms, few outside Washington care. The data from over 170,000 conversations from nearly 40,000 swing voters suggest that none of this bothers the electorate much, just 20 percent of conversations centered on Trump and not registering at all in Joe Biden conversations.

All the speculation and tactical maneuvering remains very much a topic for the media and the Washington Beltway—and actually affects the chances of either Biden or Trump very little. Voters are indifferent to both the topics, the adjacent hypocrisies, and the rights and wrongs of the whole process.

In particular, while the media clutch their pearls over politicians changing their minds over Supreme Court nominations, to voters, it sounds like moaning that the dog keeps barking. That's what they do.

The social media data show that there's no significant volume to the conversation and no significant movement of allegiances. No one was surprised by the positions taken in the 'battle' over Ginsberg's legacy. And very few will change the box that gets the X in it.

Instead, social media's floating voters content themselves with debates about the (mental) capacities and capabilities of each candidate in the face of COVID. Arguing who has the steeper mental decline seems harsh, while also strangely practical.

Those conversations are increasingly centering around Biden. The sentiment around him is increasingly volatile and are more and more focused on presentation and personality, rather than policy - something he'll need to change in the TV debates. So long as the focus remains on age and mental capacity, it's a difficult argument to shift.

Alongside that, there's a significant legacy of a dispiriting campaign for the Democrat nomination where a number of voters who have aligned themselves with the Democrats in the past openly wonder whether they can do so this time. The Bernie Bros and their chums might hold their nose and vote for Biden, but they will treat him as a pariah if they suffer that and still lose.

For Trump, meanwhile, it's about how much he can deflect from the COVID death rate. And so far so good. There's a growing sense of a resurgence on the Trump side, aligned to a feeling of being underwhelmed by Biden.

The data in the graph below measures two separate sets of conversations - those with Trump as the main topics (and there were 112,000 of those, involving 19,000 people) and a smaller number with Biden at the centre - 85,000 posts but from a larger group of people (25,000.) So while Trump had a larger 'share of voice', Biden had more people involved (which may explain the volatility. For both, the sentiment is measured as positive or negative - the graph aggregates both those datasets, so the positive/negative on the axis is an indication of how those conversations landed.

A graph produced by Impact Social shows public sentiment as gleaned from social media posts on the two candidates in the 2020 election. ImpactSocial

Overall, the social media conversations show that the lead remains with Joe, but it is beginning to feel flimsier, his advantage weakening. He remains, though, a less divisive figure in the eyes of the media. Whether their representation of him can sway the opinions of social media, we will find out in the next few weeks.