Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts January and February 2020 – Russia’s Media Mentions of 2020 Presidential Candidates (Update 2)
January and February 2020 – Russia’s Media Mentions of 2020 Presidential Candidates (Update 2)

January and February 2020 – Russia’s Media Mentions of 2020 Presidential Candidates (Update 2)

March 2, 2020

Post by Rachel Chernaskey

Since FIE 2020’s last update on Russian state-sponsored media, the 2020 election landscape has evolved considerably—some candidates have dropped out, others have surged. As the candidates weathered the Iowa caucuses and subsequent primaries, Kremlin media shifted its coverage of the race to advance new narratives, both about the candidates themselves and the integrity of U.S. elections. 

Kremlin media continued its pattern of negative coverage for establishment Democratic candidates, and unfavorable mentions for former Mayor Michael Bloomberg increased noticeably. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Amy Klobuchar and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg also continued to receive more negative coverage than positive from RT and Sputnik News (see Figure 12 below for data on mentions for candidates polling at 5% or more nationally).

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s coverage represents the most significant change in Kremlin content. Russian state media is particularly sharp toward Bloomberg: 55% of his total mentions were negative, the highest percentage in the field. Such negative coverage of Vice President Biden (who received the highest total count of negative mentions among Democrats) was expected. Putin’s administration naturally characterizes Biden in 2020—a centrist, establishment Democrat from the Obama era—as it did Clinton in 2016: an adversary. But Bloomberg, a one-time moderate Republican who rarely talks foreign policy would not necessarily be a Kremlin opponent if elected the way Biden would be.

This Kremlin denigration of Bloomberg suggests their media coverage is not so much for the long-term purposes of shaping foreign policy or to “create chaos,” but rather supports last week’s revelations that U.S. officials briefed the House Intelligence Committee that the Kremlin favors Trump and separately notified the Sanders campaign that the Kremlin may be boosting them in some way. (Following the report that his campaign had been notified about such efforts, Sanders condemned Russian interference in the U.S. election.) 

While Kremlin media often pits populist candidates (Sanders, Trump) against establishment candidates (Biden, Bloomberg), RT and Sputnik News often highlight similarities between Mayor Bloomberg and President Trump. By portraying Bloomberg and Trump as cut from the same cloth on everything from status and wealth to alleged misconduct with women, the Kremlin pursues a separate socioeconomic wedge that may nudge Democratic voters more toward Sanders or toward general apathy about political participation and voting. (For a more in-depth look at Kremlin support for Senator Sanders and President Trump, see this post from last week.)

Kremlin media also took to mocking the revival of what it refers to as “Russiagate.” One RT op-ed openly pushes the conspiracy theory, suggesting “DNC insiders” are “weaponizing” fear of Russian meddling in 2020 elections as a way to install their preferred establishment candidate. A Sputnik article about the South Carolina primary mocks American “fears of potential ‘Russian hacking’” of the election.

To date, the FIE 2020 team has analyzed more than 3,800 stories and 6,500 total mentions published by RT and Sputnik News since January 1, 2019. Here are some of the highlights in candidate mentions from December 29, 2019 to March 2, 2020—our third assessment and second update since November 2019: