For the second set of Democrat debates in Detroit, observers were looking to see if both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders could bounce back from less than enthusiastic reviews from the first round, which led to weakening poll numbers over the past weeks for both. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren were looking to build off strong performances in the first round which gave them both positive polling momentum after the Miami debates.
For those currently occupying the top six positions in the race, the Tuesday debate was positive for Warren, O’Rourke and Buttigieg. Williamson had the strongest online numbers of those candidates outside the top six as she was the second most discussed candidate during the debate, and her mentions were the most positive of any candidate. The fact she was also the most Google-searched candidate in 49/50 states during the debate indicates a high level of curiosity about her. Of the frontrunners, Sanders’ performance had the worst volume and sentiment combination with the highest volume, but the lowest sentiment of any candidate on the stage.
In Wednesday’s debate, Biden put in a performance that is unlikely to generate new support as he was by far the most discussed candidate while earning a slightly negative sentiment. As the current race leader, however, it is reasonable to attribute a larger than normal share of the negative sentiment to his frontrunner position. In his position, a slightly negative sentiment indicates he still has a strong base of support keeping the negativity in check.
Kamala Harris had the most difficult night with the second-most mentions but also the second-lowest sentiment. This could effectively put a halt on the growth in support that she enjoyed after the first debate.
Andrew Yang had the best performance of candidates outside the top six on Wednesday with the third most mentions and the best sentiment score. As Yang was starting to move up in the polls pre-debate, it will be interesting to see if this performance gives him a boost into the top six as O’Rourke and Buttigieg continue to slide.
Over the two nights of debates, we analyzed comments from approximately a quarter million social media accounts. The nature of real-time, short-text comments means that the vast majority of online mentions focused on the candidates, as opposed to the issues they are discussing. However, we sampled our dataset for comments with specific mentions of candidates along with issues to get an idea of how the public reacted to each of the candidates speaking on the key issues.
Same as in the first round of debates, the two candidates that are most aligned with the Medicare for All stance, Sanders, and Warren, were mentioned often throughout the night, but again with lower sentiment scores than many of the other candidates.
However, the issue was problematic for all of the frontrunners as both Biden and Harris earned some of the lowest sentiment scores on the issue. We found in the first debate that the Medicare for All candidates were not as well-received as those with a Public Option stance, but the water has since been muddied reflecting the lack of clarity and details from many of the candidates on what they are proposing. Inslee, a Public Option proponent, had the highest sentiment score on the issue.
Same as in the first debate, Castro and Klobuchar pulled in some of the most positive comments on the immigration issue, while it continued to be a problem area for Joe Biden. Biden’s volume and sentiment combination was the worst of the candidates, and the issue was another trouble spot for Kamala Harris as she received a very negative sentiment score on the issue. Sanders also struggled on immigration with a low sentiment score.
3) Climate Change
Jay Inslee led the charge on climate change with both the highest volume and the second-highest sentiment score. The issue was also strong for Yang with the third-highest volume and positive sentiment.
The issue remains a challenge for many of the candidates with only seven positive sentiment scores. The lowest scores came from Hickenlooper, Delaney, Harris, and Bennet.
There was enough discussion pertaining to the Mueller hearing and impeachment to warrant an analysis of the issue. Sanders generated the most comments but again found himself attracting negative sentiment.
Booker’s positive debate reviews seem to have come primarily from these discussions as he generated strong volumes with one of the highest sentiments.
Castro also had a strong volume and sentiment combination while Yang scored the highest sentiment, albeit on low volume. Ryan and Gillibrand did not perform well on the issue with the two lowest sentiment scores.
5) Racial Equality
The issue of race did not have quite the same level of fireworks in the second round of debates as it had in the first round as both Biden and Harris were unable to generate the same levels of discussion this time around.
Williamson generated the most discussion, but it was not well received online with a negative average sentiment. In fact, the four most discussed candidates on the issue all garnered negative sentiment.
O’Rourke had the best combination of volume and positive sentiment, followed by Bennet and Gillibrand. Both Biden and Harris had low to moderate volumes and negative sentiment indicating that the busing issue has likely run its course.
1) If there will be any movement in the polls based on the July debates, it will likely be a return to the pre-debate status. Biden’s performance improved and may have slowed some of the support declines he was encountering, but it is unlikely he will reverse that trend. Harris will likely lose some of the gains she made over the last month, and other than Williamson, Yang, and to some extent, Booker, no lower-tier candidates caught the attention of online users.
2) The frontrunners are having difficulty resonating with online users on the issues. When they generate the most volume on an issue, the sentiment is usually negative. Conversely, when candidates from outside the top tier are generating large discussion volumes on specific issues, the sentiment tends to be more positive.
3) The most likely candidates to benefit from the Detroit debates in the polls will be those currently in the five to eight positions: Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Yang, and Booker. All performed well not only in candidate mentions, but they were also some of the best performers on the issues giving Buttigieg and O’Rourke a chance to reverse their downward trend, while Booker and Yang can build on their momentum gained since the last debates.