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Axios-NewsWhip 2020 attention tracker: Guns surpass immigration as biggest non-impeachment issue

Data: NewsWhip; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios — Note: Hover over the weekly rank on desktop to see articles and interactions for each candidate and issue.

It has hardly registered while impeachment consumes the country, but gun control has passed immigration as the issue generating the next most interest online over the last four months, according to data from NewsWhip provided exclusively to Axios.

Why it matters: In a trend that could help shape the 2020 races, immigration — an issue that animates the right — is being usurped by a topic that animates the left.

By the numbers: Through July, stories related to immigration generated 554 million interactions (likes, comments, shares) on social media, while stories related to guns generated 269 million.

  • But since late August, stories about guns have generated 166 million interactions, compared to 131 million for immigration.
  • Foreign policy remains the No. 1 topic while Ukraine stays in the news.

Yes, but: The 2020 Democrats have been markedly absent from the gun conversation.

  • Of the 200 biggest stories about guns in the last four months, the only ones centering on Democratic candidates were about Beto O'Rourke and Kamala Harris — both now out of the race.

Between the lines: Emotion about gun violence often spikes in the aftermath of high-profile shootings, but then disappears after a few weeks. But after the El Paso and Dayton shootings on the first weekend in August, guns have stayed in the conversation, with a small spike following the shooting at a Naval base in Pensacola, Florida, this month.

Driving the news: The top story related to guns last week was when Houston police chief Art Acevedo railed against Sens. Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn for not reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act or acting on gun violence.

  • Acevedo: "I don't want to see their little smug faces about how much they care about law enforcement when I'm burying a sergeant because they don't want to piss off the NRA. Make up your minds, whose side are you on?"
  • CNN's story on the comments generated 513k interactions, more than twice as many as last week's top immigration story (227k).

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Our 2020 attention tracker is based on data from NewsWhip exclusively provided to Axios as part of a project that will regularly update throughout the 2020 campaign.

Why this tracker matters: The data on interactions — including likes, comments and shares — highlights an important, but under-appreciated element of an election: the ability to see beyond our own social feeds and understand the broader universe playing out of how candidates and issues are moving the minds of voters.

  1. It measures enthusiasm in a way that traditional polling does not.
  2. The sample size taken from these social media platforms is massive.
  3. Social media is powered by emotion-driven content, and emotional responses are likely to be aligned with a voter's true beliefs in a way that can be masked in polling.

While the volume of interactions does not gauge the sentiment of the reactions, the ability to generate reach allows a candidate to expand the universe of potential voters.

  • Bots also cannot be ignored, and we will point out in this space if there are documented instances of bot activity for certain candidates or issues.

Methodology: This project measures the number of social media interactions generated on stories published about the 2020 candidates and issues.

  • Interactions are calculated from reactions, comments and shares on those stories on Facebook as well as the number of shares from more than 300,000 influential Twitter accounts and retweets and likes on those posts.
  • Tracked published stories come from a defined universe of more than 450,000 domains.
  • A story registers for a candidate or issue if the keyword is mentioned in the headline, summary or URL of the story.
    • Our search format for candidates looks like: "Joe Biden" OR ("Biden" AND ("President" OR "2020" OR "election" OR "Democrats" OR "primary")).
    • For issues, we use a keyword tree for related terms.

See past editions of the tracker here.