Political News

Trump's case of coronavirus changed the conversation

Posted October 22, 2020 12:00 p.m. EDT

— Coronavirus remains the most prominent thing Americans have seen, read or heard about President Donald Trump, but the details and the tone of what they have heard about it have shifted following Trump's own case of the virus.

All told, roughly 40% of respondents mentioned something related to coronavirus, which has raged throughout the US for nearly eight months, when asked what they had heard about the President recently. That was a decline compared with last week, but about on par with the share of mentions the topic received in the week Trump received his diagnosis, and well above most prior weeks in the project.

That finding comes from The Breakthrough, a survey from CNN, SSRS, the University of Michigan and Georgetown University tracking Americans' recall of news about each of the presidential candidates.

The results show the net sentiment associated with news about Trump shifted this week, rising into positive territory for the first time since July.

That shift appears to be mostly due to changes in how people talk about coronavirus when it comes to Trump. Since Trump's diagnosis, more people are using positive words to talk about Trump and coronavirus than did so before the news shifted to the President's health.

In the three weeks before Trump's diagnosis, Americans frequently used words like "lie," "downplay" and "vaccine" to talk about Trump and coronavirus, words which largely related to Trump's handling of the pandemic. Since his diagnosis, frequently used words around coronavirus and Trump have been more focused on his health: "Hospital," "recover," "sick" and "positive," for example.

At the same time, the change in topic within coronavirus mentions means more of the words used in responses related to coronavirus and Trump have a positive tone to them. That change accounts for much of the positive movement in Trump's net sentiment in this week's data.

For the final stretch in the campaign, it's possible this shift could benefit Trump if attention remains off of his handling of the pandemic. But as cases rise, Americans' focus may return to Trump's role in managing the US response more than his own health.

Overall, recalled news about the presidential candidates dropped to roughly the level seen before the first presidential debate. The previous two weeks represented the high points for both candidates, with 89% reporting that they had heard news about Trump last week, and 82% saying so about former Vice President Joe Biden in the week prior. This week, 83% had heard news about Trump, 79% about Biden.

For Biden this week, his three most frequently mentioned topics were each mentioned by roughly one in 10 respondents. Two of those topics have landed near the top frequently for Biden: coronavirus and general references to his media appearances.

But the third is new for the Democratic nominee; there has been a sharp increase in words related to controversies around Biden. This week, those words primarily relate to recently published emails that purport to detail the business dealings of Biden's son in Ukraine and in China. The emails have been seized upon by President Donald Trump, Republican allies in Congress and conservative media in the closing weeks of the election to attack the Democratic nominee. CNN has not determined the authenticity of the emails. The FBI is investigating whether the emails are connected to an ongoing Russian disinformation effort targeting the former vice president's campaign, according to a US official and a congressional source briefed on the matter.

The top word for Biden in this week's data is "son," while "Ukraine" lands in the top 20.

The President and his staffers promoted articles about this information, even as Facebook and Twitter stopped users from freely sharing them.

Other words landing near the top for Biden this week are "good," "coronavirus," "town hall" and "campaign."

"Coronavirus" was the dominant word for Trump, with the rest of his frequently mentioned words trailing far behind. Other words for Trump mostly related to his return to the campaign trail, including mentions of rallies, the campaign and his town hall on NBC.

The word "debate" landed near the top for both candidates. It's the fourth word on Biden's list and the fifth for Trump. The two candidates will meet Thursday in Nashville for the final presidential debate before the election.

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