Did the economy, COVID-19, or Black Lives Matter to the Senate candidates in 2020?

The 2020 Senate elections were some of the most closely watched in recent history. Everyone around the country has been glued to their televisions waiting to find out if the Senate, which is currently controlled by the Republican Party, would tilt its partisan control to the Democrats. There were 35 seats up for grabs this year, with 12 of those ranked by the Cook Political Report as either toss-ups or leaning (on September 23rd). Democrats would only need to flip three or four of the Republican held seats to achieve majority status in the Senate (three if the next President was Joe Biden and four if President Trump won re-election).

Massive turnout has resulted in closely divided Senate results, and we may not have an answer for which party controls the Senate until January, but exit polls have now revealed that voters cared about three key issues in this election: the economy; racial inequality; and COVID-19. Approximately 60% of President Trump’s voters said the economy was their most important issue, while one-third of former Vice President Joe Biden’s voters said racial inequality was theirs.

Given that voters cared about these topics, candidates should have cared about them too, especially to attract voters. One way that candidates can signal their issue positions to voters is through their social media. To see if candidates were talking about these topics, we collected every tweet and re-tweet sent by all candidates running for these Senate seats for the last two months of the campaign (from September 3rd to November 2nd). Our data includes all major and minor party candidates, and we collected these tweets from the campaign accounts for all candidates where possible. In total, we collected 31,065 tweets for 89 candidates. We also collected demographic and district level information (gender, partisanship, and competitiveness).

First, our data reveal that, as expected, candidates in competitive races sent more tweets/re-tweets during this election (371 on average compared to 333 for those in non-competitive races). Next, we searched these tweets for all mentions of keywords associated with the economy, racial inequality, and the pandemic. A list of those key words is given in Table 1.

Table 1: Words/phrases regarding the economy, racial inequality, and the pandemic

Our results show that, when it comes to these three issues, there were more tweets sent overall about COVID-19 (5.1%) and the economy (5%) than racial inequality (1.4%). As Figure 1 shows, unlike COVID-19 and the economy, there were very few tweets about how to address racial inequality from anyone. When we split our sample into those in competitive races (N=36) and those who were not (N=53), we find that those in competitive races paid more attention to all three issues than those in non-competitive races. Women and Democrats also sent more tweets about the economy and COVID-19, while racial equity was rarely discussed. Women sent approximately the same number of tweets about those topics than men, while Democrats sent fewer tweets about racial inequality than Republicans.

Figure 1: Number of tweets about the economy, racial inequality, and COVID-19

When we explore our data further, we see that most of the tweets sent by Republicans about racial inequality were negative in nature, and were almost all against defunding the police. There was only one tweet from a Republican (Cory Gardner) that was positive about moving forward regarding race in this country. Democrats, on the other hand, only discussed positive steps that could be taken about racial inequality, but sent very few tweets overall about these key words/phrases. Only 15 candidates in our dataset sent any tweets about Breonna Taylor, for instance, with most being from Democratic candidates.

Given that the public cast ballots this year caring the most about these three issues, it is our hope that our decision-makers in Washington will pay more attention to these issues, especially racial inequality. It is embarrassing that so few tweets were sent about these words and phrases in a time when citizens across the country felt like “I can’t breathe.” Senatorial candidates need to do better.