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Fighting talk (Nonesuch spring 2016)

13 May 2016

As the 2016 US Presidential Race continues to unfold, media scrutiny around the world has never been more intense. From reporting on the latest chapter in America’s complex and controversial story to analysing prodigious amounts of data, Bristol alumni and academics have been getting to grips with the US election.

'This is an exciting election to cover, with so many twists and turns,' says Laura Trevelyan (BSc 1990), an anchor on BBC World News America whose career as a journalist has included covering several UK general elections and, since 2009, American current affairs.

'After years as a political correspondent excitedly covering the key marginal constituencies in the likes of Swindon, Reading and Leicester, the experience of reporting the vastness of the United States is quite different,' she says. 'Here, you have to grasp the difference between the Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican vote in the pivotal swing state of Florida, and try to assess what impact President Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba may make in November’s election. Quite a change from my days on Spain’s Costa Del Sol interviewing the British expatriate voters.'

Besides excitement, there’s also – times being what they are – a high degree of anxiety. 'I was watching the Republican candidates' debates with my children,' says Trevelyan, 'and the messages were all negative: ISIS are round every corner, the economy’s cratering, President Obama’s been a disaster. There was none of the upbeat "It’s morning again in America" rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, for example.'

At the centre of the national mood, as ever, is the economy. 'After the economic catastrophe of 2008/9, real wages are still stagnant,' says Trevelyan, 'so even though job creation seems to be strong, many Americans are feeling insecure. Something I hear a lot is that people think that their children aren't going to have the same standard of living as they’ve had, because of house prices, healthcare, and huge hikes in college tuition. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have tapped into that quite successfully: Sanders with his anti-Wall Street stance, Trump with his anti-immigrant populism.'

Power of the visual

For Dr Elspeth Van Veeren (PhD 2011), Lecturer in Political Science in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, the 2016 campaign has provided the latest wrinkles in America's presentation of itself, especially the visual aspects.

'Increasingly, political scientists, and politicians themselves, are recognising the power of the visual and how that has to be in sync with the messages they're trying to communicate,' she says. 'I try to get my students, especially those new to American politics, to understand how strongly the visual is factored into US political campaigns – everything from how a stage is set up for a political campaign speech to political ads that are filled with subtle cues.'

She cites the video with which Hillary Clinton launched her campaign, 'really slick and sophisticated, which not only in the spoken words, but also visually, emphasised the message of the diversity of the US: gender and sexual diversity, religious diversity, and ethnic diversity – there was even a dog and a cat. Everything was perfectly crafted visually to send out the message that she's supporting diversity, but it also made sure to connect with people who are still suffering from the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis – the "hard-working Americans" – so that they can see themselves represented in her campaign and feel they’re being listened to.'

Sometimes, the visual is hard to control: when Republican Senator Marco Rubio delivered the opposition's rebuttal to President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union speech, his evident nerves and a fumbling moment with a glass of water ('a lot like Ed Miliband’s bacon-sandwich-eating moment,' suggests Van Veeren) created an awkward impression that, three years on, still haunted his campaign for the 2016 Republican nomination. Then there was Jeb Bush’s tweet of a photograph of an engraved handgun in February, which prompted a deluge of parodies.

Big data, big picture

The sheer quantity of content – parodic or otherwise – generated by the media makes the US elections an ideal candidate for large-scale pattern analysis.

In 2012, Nello Cristianini, Professor of Artificial Intelligence, and colleagues in Bristol’s Intelligent Systems Laboratory seized the opportunity to put some advanced algorithms to work. 'We can use computers to detect sentiment and opinion,’ explains Cristianini. ’They can analyse text and images, and extract macroscopic patterns and trends that help us better understand the workings of the media.'

The team collected more than 130,000 newspaper articles from American online news outlets, using computers to analyse these articles sentence by sentence, identify subject-verb-object triplets (such as 'Romney criticised Obama' or 'Obama praised the Senate'), and assign a weighting for each verb according to the degree of support or opposition it represented.

'Our analysis could automatically identify the two key parties in this huge network, which confirms that the method works,' says Cristianini. The study showed that media reporting in 2012 featured more frequent positive statements about the Democrats than the Republicans, and that the Republicans had more divisive opinions on issues compared to the Democrats.

Cristianini has found this method less successful in the UK. Some of the reasons are easy to deduce: the US is a much larger country, its elections are longer and more 'fixed' in the calendar, and the binary nature of the campaigns suits computer programmes nicely. But Cristianini also suggests another reason: a lot of the US discourse around elections is plain-speaking, even brash on occasion, compared to the British idiom, and some issues in the UK are harder for a computer to parse. ‘One subtle way to be negative about Labour in the last election was to suggest they may end up in an alliance with the SNP,' he says. ‘That is not a negative statement in itself – the reader has to join the dots. A computer can’t do that. But if you say "this person is an idiot", the computer gets it.'

Let’s get qualitative

'The purpose of our work,' Cristianini points out, 'is not to predict but to understand.' A veritable industry, however, has been built around the desire for accurate predictions about voting behaviour. Needless to say, it works to a tighter deadline.

Political polling has reached a peak of sophistication in the US thanks to statistician Nate Silver, whose carefully weighted methods, partly derived from his nuanced analysis of baseball statistics, proved outstandingly successful in predicting the state-by-state outcomes of the 2008 and 2012 US elections. Not so in the UK, where polls during the 2015 election were so wide of the mark that the British Polling Council launched an inquiry into current practice.

'We can learn a lot about polling from the US,' says Deborah Mattinson (LLB 1978), who worked as a pollster for former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, before co-founding the research consultancy BritainThinks. 'We only do elections every five years, and they do them all the time and spend much more money.' But, Mattinson argues, the US can also learn from the UK.

'We use much more sophisticated qualitative, ethnographic techniques that allow us to get a better understanding of the deeper views and perceptions that influence people’s behaviour at the ballot box,' she explains. 'We’re much more interested in "small data", and more deliberative data.'

In a 2015 collaboration with The Guardian, Battleground Britain, Mattinson and her colleagues set up a 50-strong panel of swing voters in five marginal constituencies to get a deeper understanding of how this key group of voters thought and felt about the UK election. Among the methods they employed was the relatively new approach of mobile ethnography, in which participants use their mobile phones to record their reactions, opinions and feelings 'in the moment'.
 
Hundreds of hours of focus groups, workshops and mobile usage later, the findings suggested that the Conservatives won over the swing voters because they were perceived as having the twin attributes of competence and certainty – qualities that Labour too often lacked – in addition to a clear message.

Dream interpretation

Competence and certainty are concepts that translate well between cultures; there are others that resist translation more stubbornly. Perhaps chief among them is the American Dream: the notion that, with enough gumption and self-belief, Americans can advance themselves and achieve prosperity and happiness.

'The American Dream is one of the intangibles about America, certainly,' suggests Trevelyan. 'Gun culture is another one that’s pretty hard to explain to an outsider. And I’d say the role of religious faith is much stronger here than in Europe.'

But it's the spectre of the American Dream’s collapse, she argues, that haunts the current electoral landscape and can be heard rattling its chains beneath the media coverage. 'Americans have always been a practical, problem-solving, optimistic people, but the fact that wages now are stagnant, opportunities seem more limited and costs are rising – that’s definitely a threat to the dream, and there’s a lot of campaign talk about how to reignite it.'

For Trevelyan, both the challenge and the excitement of covering this year’s election is the complete absence of certainty. 'You simply don’t know what the day will bring —it's like a rollercoaster,' she says. ‘This race has conventional wisdom turning cartwheels!'

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Further information

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