Apr 18, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Trump show dominates pandemic while Biden's voice fades

Data: Internet Archive Television News Archive, NewsWhip, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Parse.ly, Google Trends; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

President Trump's presence during the coronavirus pandemic completely dwarfs Joe Biden's across nearly every media channel. As the president riffs for hours in front of TV cameras, Biden is chugging away on virtual livestreams — practically unnoticed.

The big picture: Biden may be the Democratic nominee for all practical purposes, but the virus crisis is making it easier for Trump to dominate pretty much all measures of media attention — and harder for Biden to gain any traction.

Reality check: The extra exposure for Trump hasn’t necessarily achieved his goals. The president’s approval rating has taken a 6-point hit since late March, as two-thirds of Americans in a Pew survey saw him as taking action too slowly on the coronavirus response.

Biden has been trying to stand up a shadow presidency to contrast Trump in demeanor and policy ideas, giving interviews about the coronavirus on a daily basis. But by any measure, Trump easily overshadows him as the virus makes traditional campaigning impossible.

  • On social media: Stories about Trump have generated 7x more interactions (likes, comments, shares) on Facebook and Twitter than Biden over the last month, according to data from NewsWhip.
  • Social media following: Trump's online fan size dwarfs Biden's on Twitter (77m to 4.9m), Facebook (27m to 1.7m) and Instagram (19.1m to 1.8m).
  • On web traffic: Stories about Trump have gotten 5.5x more views than Biden stories, according to data from sites in the Parse.ly network.
  • On Google: There have been 7x more searches for Trump than Biden, according to Google Trends.
  • On TV: Trump has been mentioned more than 3x as much as Biden on cable news, according to the Internet Archive Television News Archive.

The other side: It's always easier for incumbent presidents to dominate the public's attention during a re-election campaign. But the coronavirus has made Trump's job even easier by giving him a platform to lead live news briefings for hours at a time, in a crisis atmosphere that naturally crowds out Biden's activities.

  • The early-evening Trump show has been driving news cycles as combative exchanges with the press and strategic pivots from the White House propel conversation.
  • Biden's donors have noticed the attention gap, too. At a telephone fundraiser in March, one asked him about it, per a pool report: "What I’m concerned about is that we see Donald Trump every day with this crisis giving his press report. And I would just love to see you more. Like how do we get more of you and less of him on our airwaves?”

Biden, in an effort to sculpt his own presidential posture during lockdown, has been blitzing cable news interviews and holding addresses via livestream a couple of times a week.

  • He's also launched a newsletter and new podcast to remain in touch with supporters amid the pandemic.

Biden's aides are banking on their belief that there are plenty of people who prefer Biden's style to Trump's more divisive approach.

  • "This isn't a shouting contest,” and Biden is “the compassionate and emphatic voice that's sorely missing from the White House,” said campaign spokesman TJ Ducklo.

Between the lines: Trying to win the attention fight at all could be contrary to how Biden wants to portray himself.

  • While modern elections play to the attention economy, Biden's appeal to voters is that he's the much-needed antithesis of viral — a steady, known commodity that won't surprise you.
  • Kevin Roose writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Trump’s unfiltered, combative style is a natural fit for the hyperpolarized audiences on Facebook and Twitter, whereas Mr. Biden’s more conciliatory, healer-in-chief approach can render him invisible on platforms where conflict equals clicks."

The bottom line: While Biden could begin to chip away at the attention gap when lockdowns end and something resembling traditional campaigning resumes, the chasm is likely far too great for him to erase.

Go deeper