With the completion of the first set of Democratic debates, it appears that there is a much tighter race ahead, with Joe Biden dealing with the fallout from poor reviews of his performance, and positive reviews for several other candidates—Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris in particular.
As we reported post-debates, online activity indicated that among the top six candidates in the polls, Warren, Harris, and Buttigieg served themselves well in their debates while Biden, Sanders, and O’Rourke did not.
Looking at the candidates that have been on the outside of the top six, Wednesday saw Julian Castro with the best combination of mention volume and positive sentiment. Along with Castro, reactions to Tulsi Gabbard, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar were positive as they all either generated significant discussion online, positive sentiment, or a reasonable combination of both. The remaining four Wednesday candidates had combinations of low volumes or low sentiment in their mentions.
Thursday provided a few surprises as Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang were the two candidates that attracted significant positive attention. Of all of the candidates, Williamson’s performance generated the most attention of the candidates that had previously been polling in the 0-1% range. Her challenge will be to maintain the attention and translate it into support. The remaining four Thursday candidates had combinations of low volumes or low sentiment in their mentions.
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 both candidates and issues to get an idea of how the public reacted to each of the candidates speaking on the key issues.
The healthcare discussions online most mentioned the two candidates that are most closely aligned with a Medicare for All stance: Sanders and Warren.
The sentiments of the Sanders and Warren mentions were average among all the candidates (slightly positive), but the sentiment in mentions of Buttigieg, Delaney, Castro, Ryan, and Yang was found to be higher, possibly indicating the public is more comfortable with a Public Option approach.
The highest sentiment was found in comments mentioning Julian Castro, albeit on a relatively small volume.
Castro, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg had the best combinations of high volume and high sentiment over the two nights on Immigration. The issue proved to be one of Biden’s trouble spots as he was mentioned in the highest number of comments, but with a negative average sentiment. It is an area that could cause him problems moving forward.
Both Warren and Sanders also had negative reactions, but at a lower volume. Andrew Yang immigration mentions had the highest sentiment but on very low volume.
3) Climate Change
Jay Inslee was successful in making sure his voice was heard on the climate change issue as he generated the most mentions, and his message was well received with his mentions being slightly positive.
Buttigieg, Yang, and Castro mentions had the highest sentiment, but the striking metric on this issue is the negative reaction to Kamala Harris. With the average sentiment from her mentions well below the average, it could be an indicator that her endorsement of the New Green Deal could be an issue for her campaign.
4) Reproductive Rights
As we found over the first three issues, the basis of Julian Castro’s strong overall performance was policy, and his message on reproductive rights was no exception as he had the strongest combination of mention volume and sentiment in those discussions.
Both Warren and Gillibrand generated significant mentions but failed to resonate as the sentiment was slightly negative.
The issue also shows another key issue on which Harris did not perform well with both low volume and negative sentiment.
5) Racial Equality
The most discussed exchange from either debate was the Harris/Biden discussion regarding Biden’s past stances on school busing. A lot of the post-debate narrative revolves around the belief that the exchange was good for Harris and bad for Biden, but our numbers don’t reflect that line of thinking. Instead, the sentiments for both Biden and Harris mentions were in negative territory, indicating that it likely will not have a dramatically positive or negative impact for either candidate.
And again, one of the best combinations of volume and sentiment went to Julian Castro.
Our issue-based analysis of the debates found several key points that indicate the race will become tighter over the next few months.
1) Issue-based messages from candidates currently outside the top six were much better received than those from the current top six candidates. Julian Castro performed the best of all candidates on the issues as he had positive reactions on large volumes of mentions across all of the issues. Andrew Yang had some of the most positive sentiment in his mentions, but he struggled to generate much volume. Of note is that the two perceived winners of each debate, Warren and Harris, had mostly average to below-average sentiments expressed in their issue-based mentions, putting into question the importance of policy platforms or stances at this stage of the race.
2) Candidates perceived to be more on the left wing of the Party registered average to below average performances on the specific issues. Warren on Immigration and Sanders on Climate Change are two examples of messages received with very negative sentiment on strong volumes of mentions. The top sentiments expressed on the issues came from candidates taking moderate stances on each of the issues.
3) Several candidates took full advantage of the opportunity the debate provided them. Castro, Yang, Booker, and Williamson all performed in a manner that caught the public’s attention, and now they have the opportunity to spread their message to a much wider audience than had been previously listening. Delaney, Bennet, Inslee, Ryan, DeBlasio, and Hickenlooper did not and will have to rethink their approach in the July debates.