Trump-Biden Debate Failed to Sway Swing Voters | Analysis

This week should have been a turning point in the Presidential race. It certainly was a big week in the media. First the revelations about Trump's taxes ought to have taken a chunk out of his support, and it was then followed up by the playground squabbling of the Presidential debate, the unedifying spectacle of two grown men swapping childish insults rather than policy points. That, surely should have begun to turn swing voters in one direction or another. This, perhaps, was the defining moment.

Well, maybe not yet.

We're tracking voter intention data with 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. They measure two sets of conversations - where Biden is the subject and where Trump is, and track the topics which surround them and the sentiment, positive or negative, around it.

What's remarkable about the data this week, which predates the Presidential diagnosis is that issues which once would have crippled a campaign now leave barely a mark. Next week may tell a different story, although you shouldn't bet on it. The strange thing this week is that things that used to matter don't seem to be impacting yet on the election data.

Historically, the TV debates seemed to turn on what, this week seems to have been remarkably inconsequential matters. In 2000, Al Gore sighed "the sigh heard around the world" while listening to George W Bush. He lost.

Eight years earlier, Bush had had the temerity to look at his watch while an audience member made an impassioned point. He lost.

In the very first TV debate, Richard Nixon had the audacity to visibly sweat. He lost.

Compare that to the accusations of stupidity, the barking of 'shut up, man' and the constant interruptions of the chaotic debate this week. And while those historic tiny moments seemed to impact on the outcome, social media data this week shows barely a scratch.

There was plenty of reaction, but little impact. For all those complaining about how he had embarrassed America (note to the US: we already knew), there were just as many who applauded him for standing up to the 'establishment' who had, obviously, set the poor man up with aggressive questioning.

And yet, the overall opinion of Trump remained the same. Those who thought either positively or negatively about him simply sought refuge in their pre-cooked opinion. They saw in the debate what they had already seen in the last four years. The event filled newscasts, websites and newspapers, but altered nothing.

The other big media story of the week had the same effect. Trump's failure to produce his tax returns throughout his Presidency left him open to the sort of scoop that emerged this week that he had in fact, barely paid taxes at all. This too made no dent in his numbers. Those who thought that, just maybe, he'd been hiding his tax returns for this very reason felt vindicated, not surprised. Those who thought that the liberal media elite had always had it in for the poor man felt much the same.

In Trump HQ, they will be vacillating between the idea that his support is solid and their rather unpredictable charge seems incapable of losing support, with the new variable of his Covid diagnosis and the uncertainties that brings. They will be less comfortable that he seems equally incapable of gaining it, for the moment at least. The President sits around 15 below Biden and the opportunity that the TV debate traditionally would have offered to bite into that lead went slipping by.

For Biden, his occasional (if forgivable) intemperance in the TV debate was the only way he gained much attention. With a lead like that, in both traditional polling and in social media numbers, Biden just has to keep out of trouble. His approach, like that of a grandparent and a troublesome child, hit the right note for many and those who criticized his performance seemed more agitated that organizers had allowed a bias against Trump.

Biden's clear lead in positive sentiment and Trump's inability to create headway into that lead suggests two contrasting strategies. Biden needs to keep to to calm waters. If all stays steady, these numbers suggest the White House is his.

By that same measure, Trump needs dramatic change and he may just have got it. His diagnosis brings the COVID-19 crisis (and how he's dealt with it) right to his front door and brings huge uncertainty to the timetable of the election as a whole and to the TV debates in particular. Trump needed drama to drive a shift in the election drama and now he's got it. Biden's issue is how to deal with Trump's personal situation while keeping the spotlight on his wider handling of the pandemic.

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