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Republican primary debates: how well did the candidates fare on social media?

In case you missed our previous blog post, Digital Contact was asked by some of our partners to monitor the social engagement seen during the run up to the 2016 US Presidential Election. Well, last night saw the first live television debates between the running candidates for the US Republican Party.

With so many candidates (17 in total) in the running for the party’s leadership, the debates had to be split into two, with the top ten polled candidates (based on an average of five unbiased polls conducted by recognised organisations) entered into a ‘prime-time’ 9pm (EST) television slot for a two-hour debate and the lower ranking seven candidates on an earlier time-slot of 5pm (EST).

Well, the two debates have ended and our big data analytics system has been crunching the numbers and we can now reveal some of the high-level pieces of information we gleamed from the nights’ events. 

Business matters

While most of this article will talk about the ‘prime-time’ debate, which was more heated and (frankly) interesting from a data perspective, it has to be noted that the clear winners for each debate, purely in terms of social media engagement, were not the seasoned politicians but rather business people.

Donald Trump was by far and away the most talked about candidate in the second debate, but one could argue that his aggressive, brash style and the fact that he holds a ‘celebrity’ status would boost his social score.

However, in the first debate, it was the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, Carly Fiorina, who stood out amongst her peers – receiving the highest volume of social chatter amongst the first debate candidates and praise from the media afterwards, Carly Fiorina received nearly twice as much social engagement than her nearest competitor during the 5pm debate.

But while Carly Fiorina exceeded expectations from the public, it was Donald Trump who outshone all competitors of the night on social media.

Screen-time doesn’t equate to social-time

The New York Times published a breakdown of the candidates’ total airtime during the prime-time debate, highlighting the vast amount of time Donald Trump had on screen compared to his competitors.

But one thing we noted was that the screen-time didn’t necessarily tally against the volume of social mentions about each candidate.

As we found, Donald Trump did have the highest volume of social mentions, but other than that one candidate, the others appear in a different order as to who received the highest volume of mentions and engagement on social media. 

Staying controversial

Throughout his business and now political career, Donald Trump has always been seen as a straight-shooting personality and has caused his fair share of controversy and upset along the way (see chart below for all points).

Last night’s debate was no different. Before the debate had properly begun, a question was asked by the team of Fox News mediators – whether any of the candidates present would refuse to pledge support to the eventual nominee of the Republican Party and that they wouldn’t run as an independent against that victor.

Out of the ten candidates on stage Donald Trump was the only person to raise his hand and openly said that he could not pledge to support any other candidate than himself and he would not rule out running as an independent should he not be voted in as the Republican leader – which sparked an angry response from the Senator of Kentucky, Rand Paul. [See chart point A]

More controversy was aired by Trump early on when he was questioned about derogatory terms he's used against women in the past, such as calling them “ugly” and “fat pigs”, to which he replied quickly: "Only Rosie O’Donnell” – causing jeers from the audience. [See chart point B]

Furthermore, on the subject of immigration, Trump made a comment about building a giant wall between America and Mexico, with a “big, beautiful door” to allow in legal immigrants. He was also questioned on a statement he previously made about having ‘evidence’ that the Mexican government was sending criminals and drugs to America, while keeping the good people for themselves.

Within his response Trump said that the “American leaders and politicians are stupid and the Mexican government is smarter, sharper and more cunning and they send the bad ones over because they don't want to pay for them, they don't want to take care of them, why should they when the stupid leaders of the US will do it for them - and that's what's happening whether you like it or not.” [See chart point C]

Going head-to-head

But it wasn’t just Donald Trump who was making waves with his comments. As our data shows, three other candidates stood out with their social media interaction: Ben Carson, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio all stood out with various comments they made.

When the subject of terrorism was broached, both Chris Christie and Rand Paul went head-to-head over the controversial subject of collecting data on the American public. Paul argued that he “only wanted to collect information on terrorists, not innocent civilians” – which sparked a heated debate between the two. [See chart point D]

Ben Carson also made some waves on social media talking about using extreme interrogation measures, such as water boarding, to which he responded saying there's “no such thing as a politically correct war” and we shouldn't be tying the hands of military leaders. [See chart point E]

Other highlights sparking social engagement

See the full chart (above) for highlights of social media reactions to comments made during the debate. 

  • Chart point F: Trump caused even more controversy when he spoke about the "broken system" and how in the past he gave money to politicians and, in turn, they would "be there" for him. He jokingly referenced Hillary Clinton coming to his wedding and that she had "no choice" - because he had previously given her campaign money.
  • Chart point G: Ben Carson also commented on Hillary Clinton, stating that she was the epitome of "secular progressive movement" and that she was "taking advantage of useful idiots". 
  • Chart point H: Trump fights back against using the laws to his advantage and claims that certain poor business decisions, where four of his companies have gone bankrupt, and whether or not he is the person to run the nation's business.
  • Chart point I: Trump questioned about his sudden switch to becoming a Republican and that many see him as more of a Democrat still. Trump responded, saying he has made a transformation over time, making a comparison to Nixon.
  • Chart point J: Trumps calls Obama "incompetent" and says that the people in Washington don't know what they are doing when it comes to making deals with terrorists.
  • Chart point K: Marco Rubio is asked about God and the Veterans. He responds with a joke about how God has given the Republicans several good candidates, while the Democrats not being able to find one. And talks about the Veterans Affairs (VA) that doesn't do enough for the Veterans - and if he were President, they will have a VA that cares more about Veterans and not the bureaucrats working there.
  • Chart point L: In Carson's closing statement he makes some funny comments about his surgical skills, which receives a big laugh from the audience and a last-minute spike in social engagement.

[Please note: Digital Contact is in no way directly affiliated with any political party or candidate]

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