As the field was reduced to ten in Houston, the top three candidates entered the debate with a firm hold on their front runner positions as both Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg had seen their poll numbers reduced since the July debates. Andrew Yang and Beto O’Rourke came into the debate after a week of considerable media coverage and were positioned to get a bump out of the low single digits with a strong debate performance.
As in the first two sets of debates, Joe Biden was the subject of the highest share of online discussion, but the average sentiment of those discussions was the second most negative of any of the candidates. O’Rourke and Yang put in the performances they needed with both candidates generating strong discussion volumes with positive sentiment. While Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg had the highest sentiment scores overall, they failed to generate many mentions. Julian Castro had the worst night with the lowest overall sentiment on low volume.
As we have for the past two sets of debates, we analyzed comments from approximately one 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.
1) Gun Control
After he positioned himself as the gun control candidate in the race last week, it was no surprise that O’Rourke generated close to 10x more mentions than the other candidates on the issue Thursday night. The challenge for O’Rourke on gun control is that it continues to result in strongly negative sentiment scores indicating his stance is not overly popular.
Out of the ten candidates, only Sanders, Yang, and Buttigieg were able to generate a positive sentiment score overall on the issue. The lowest average sentiment was found in Cory Booker’s mentions as he has also started to position the issue as a central part of his campaign.
The two most discussed candidates also provided the highest and lowest sentiment scores on the immigration issue. Same as in the first two debates, Biden struggled on immigration with the lowest sentiment on the highest volume, while Yang resonated with the public scoring the highest sentiment with relatively strong volume.
Biden’s strategy of defending the Obama administration has become a problem when the discussion turns to immigration, and it will be interesting to see if he continues with his approach given the challenges it has been causing for him in the debates. The issue also continues to be a problem area for Kamala Harris as she was unable to generate any significant volume despite an improved sentiment score on the issue.
3) Health care
With a strong combination of high sentiment and volume, Elizabeth Warren performed the best on the issue of health care. At the same time, Biden and Klobuchar mentions were decidedly negative, which could be an indication that Medicare-for-all supporters, such as Warren and Sanders, are doing a better job in promoting the plan.
The highest sentiment score was once again earned by Yang, but the debate discussion was dominated by Biden, Sanders, and Warren, leaving the rest of the candidates with relatively low volumes.
1) Second-tier candidates O’Rourke and Yang are outperforming Booker and Buttigieg in making their case to be considered top tier candidates as demonstrated by higher overall volumes of discussion. The noticeable difference between the two is the positivity found in Yang’s mentions compared to the significant negativity found in O’Rourke’s.
2) Biden continues to lead in the polls, but his consistent inability to earn positive sentiment indicates there is a weakness in his numbers that could explain his decreasing numbers in some polls recently.
3) Kamala Harris continues to struggle not only with her overall sentiment but also with the lack of volume on any issue indicating she is no longer resonating with the public in the way she did during the first debate. Similar to recent polls, our analysis shows her sliding into the second tier leaving Biden, Warren, and Sanders as the remaining top tier candidates.