Election Year Bias

vote 2020

If you are looking for examples of bias, it's hard to beat an election year. The 2020 national election in the United States stands out in this regard. Two sides stand in stark opposition: Republicans and Democrats.

The intent of this article is not to align with one side or the other. Instead, the purpose is to strengthen investigative search skills by engaging in bias detection. The investigative targets are two fund-raising letters, one sent by President Donald Trump and the other by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Both were mailed during the summer of 2020. Both letters are biased in favor of respective party positions and against the other party. This is completely normal. No matter the candidates, bias for and against are intended to get voters to donate money.

The 'ask' for donations is not hidden, but signs of bias may go unnoticed. If you find yourself agreeing with one of the following paragraphs and not the other, ask yourself, "why is only one of these offensive?" They both contain material that may be considered offensive. The point is not to agree with everything you read and to avoid being blindly manipulated without knowing it.

Republican Example

"And that's why I need patriotic Americans like you working to help me fight back against the Democrats' well- funded, aggressive campaign to seize control of the White House and both chambers of Congress."

Democrat Example

"Our House Democratic Majority is the only barrier keeping Trump and his yes-men from trampling all over the Constitution and turning the power of the federal government into a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party and its special interest donors. We cannot back down from this fight."

Both paragraphs are excerpts from letters that contain many indicators of bias. Both use similar tactics: calling out the other party, both trying to incite readers to fight, both appealing to the fear of what could happen if action is not taken, and an assortment of colorful, weighted words to a) promote their side and b) denigrate the other side. Let's start with word choices using only the two excerpts above:

  • How Republicans want you to see themselves: patriotic Americans, fighting back
  • How Republicans want you to see Democrats: well-funded, aggressive, seiz(ing) control
  • How Democrats want you to see themselves: House Democratic Majority, the only barrier, fighting
  • How Democrats want you to see Republicans: yes-men, trampling the Constitution, turning (federal government) into a wholly owned subsidiary, special-interest donors

None of these words is absolutely necessary. There are other things to say and other ways to say them. So why were these words chosen? The answer to that is: these words are intended to motivate the reader to donate money. If these words make you angry, afraid, or raise the stakes of the fight to the point of action, they have done their job. These words are meant to persuade--to see their side in a good light and the other side as an opposite extreme.

One way to 'see' words like this is to take your own temperature as you read them. Do they attract or repell you? Do they turn you on or off? Do they make you emotional? Do they make you question? If so, these are value-laden words (for you). Not all people will sense the same value or react the same way. It's best not to be blind to these words and their effects on others. It doesn't mean we all have to see things the same way, but it is important to understand others' points of view if we hope to communicate with them. It's also important to question how something is said, since biased materials can be used to manipulate readers (in this case, to donate money).

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More examples

See if you can identify whether these value-weighted words are used in the Republican or Democrat fund-raising letter:


It's not easy to tell

Both sides accuse the other of abuse and extremes, so it's not easy to tell them apart merely on the basis of individual words. They are essentially equal in terms of bias, except one is conservative and the other is liberal. Some may be based on opinions. Others may be based on facts. Neither party is immune to bias. In fact, they can't be if they hope to compete for voters.

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Extreme words, by themselves, are just clues to the presence of bias. To tell what the bias is for or against requires thoughtful reading to determine if bias is backed by evidence or just opinion. Use the presence of extreme words and language that may be intended to 'push your buttons' as a first line of defense against bias that should be investigated further to determine if information is based on opinions or facts.

For more on this, see Curriculum: Connections in this issue.

Curriculum: Bias Detection

Reading current events for political bias. Go

Action Zone: Evaluation Challenge

Don't trust the first result you see. A video gamer challenge. Go

Assessment: What Students Know

Students read pro-Republican and pro-Democratic campaign letters to test their ability to identify trigger words that are examples of bias. Go

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