Dr Daniel Jackson
Associate Professor of Media and Communications at Bournemouth University
Prof Danielle Sarver Coombs
Kent State University
Dr Filippo Trevisan
Assistant professor of Public Communication at American University
Prof Darren Lilleker
Professor of Political Communication at Bournemouth University
Prof Einar Thorsen
Professor of Journalism and Communication at Bournemouth University
This election has raised countless questions and talking points, which journalists, academics, pollsters, pundits, and politicians alike are all busy analyzing. This project, and the report that follows, is our collective contribution to making sense of the 2020 election. To do this, we have again turned to leading academics in the U.S. and beyond – a diverse mix of world-leading experts and early career researchers – to offer their reflections, analysis and early research findings on the election campaign, the results, and what they might mean for the future of American politics.
Section 1 covers the policy and political context of the 2020 campaign. This was, of course, dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic that had taken over 240,000 American lives by the time of the election. But it also proved to be a divisive political issue, with incumbent Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden offering different visions of how the U.S. should respond to the pandemic. The two candidates also offered contrasting policy platforms around such issues as abortion, foreign policy, immigration, and the environment, each of which are taken up by our contributors.
In section 2 we turn to voters. 2020 saw a historic turnout rate of over 65% – the highest in over 100 years, and supported by a record number of mail-in and early in-person votes due to the pandemic. Pre-election polls had raised the prospect of a comfortable Biden win, and while at the time this report went to print he still looked likely to take the electoral college by some margin, overall voting patterns also demonstrated the resilience of the Trump vote. Our contributors examine the divisions within the American electorate along racial, geographic, age, and religious lines, while unpacking the increasing polarization around certain issues.
While both leading candidates were white, male and in their seventies, they are still fascinating dynamics behind their candidacies, which then shaped their campaign strategies. In section 3, our contributors examine the psychology of the candidates and their followers, alongside some of the key aspects of their campaign and communication strategies.
Section 4 turns attention to news and journalism. Throughout Trump’s divisive presidency, he has presented the mainstream news media with unique challenges. Since becoming president, Trump has made over 22,500 false or misleading claims, averaging over 50 false or misleading claims a day in the final stretch of the election 2020 campaign. Meanwhile, the mainstream media has been subject to unprecedented political assault, particularly from the White House. By the end of this campaign and in an apparent shift from the ways in which they covered Trump in the previous four years, we saw TV networks cutting off the president as he made baseless claims about voter fraud.
Social media (section 5) was again a key battleground. Consistent with his 2016 campaign and his last four years in office, Trump sought to control the news agenda through his tweets. Yet, he now found himself subject to the moderation of the platforms, who censored a number of his tweets behind misinformation warnings, especially in the aftermath of the vote. Meanwhile, Biden’s winning campaign spoke of how it ‘turned off Twitter’ during stages of the campaign. Scholars will be monitoring whether these and other developments continue beyond this election cycle and are seen in other national contexts.
Political communication does not just exist in news and other formal political spaces, but in popular culture too. In section 6, contributors show how sport, satire, and comedy are not just entertainment, but are actively involved in public critique during the election.
We end the report (section 7) with contributions that reflect on the state of democracy in the U.S. We do not use the word ‘crisis’ lightly, but we believe – alongside historians of fascism and authoritarianism – that this election has exposed the fragility of liberal democracy in the U.S. As we write, the election outcome is disputed, the integrity of the voting process is being attacked, truth and facts are drowning amidst waves of misinformation, and the sitting President has warned of “violence on the streets” if the vote count is not cut short. A poll from Politico/ Morning Consult found that 70% of Republicans do not believe the presidential election was “free and fair”. These are trends that may well outlive Trump’s presidency and affect U.S. politics for years to come.
Published within ten days of the result, these contributions are short and accessible. Authors provide authoritative analysis – including research findings and new theoretical insights – to bring readers original ways of understanding the campaign. Contributions also bring a rich range of disciplinary influences, from political science to cultural studies, journalism studies to geography. We hope this makes for a vibrant, informative and thought-provoking read.