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Gage Skidmore / flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

Trump, Bush, and Fiorina all lost the Republican presidential debate

Reading the Twitter tea leaves to discover who won.


Aaron Sankin


Posted on Sep 18, 2015   Updated on May 27, 2021, 11:03 pm CDT

At their core, the purpose of political debates are to give candidates the opportunity to shake up the status quo. Put all the candidates into a room, ask them a mix of serious and ridiculous questions, and then see if their answers change the conversation about the election. 

With the debate between the bevy of candidates looking to nab the 2016 Republican presidential nomination who gathered onstage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, this week, most of that conversation was happening on Twitter.

At the request of the Daily Dot, social media intelligence firm Wayin looked at some 1.7 million tweets about the debate, segmented them by candidate, and then performed a sentiment analysis. Sentiment-analysis programs are able to algorithmically scan a giant mass of social media and determine the overall feelings being expressed. Of everyone tweeting about a given topic, how many are saying something positive and how many are angrily complaining about it being terrible?

When Wayin ran a sentiment analysis about the candidates, the result was surprising. For each of the three candidates generating the highest volume of tweets—Donald Trump, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush—not a single one left the debate with a higher percentage of people saying nice things about them than they did going in.

This slip among top candidates is in contrast to what happened during the first GOP debate, where social sentiment for most candidates nudged up by about five-to-10 points. There were some notable exceptions at this initial debate—Fiorina’s bump was far larger, more than 20 points, and Trump sagged by about 10 points for a few days afterward.

The biggest drop in this week’s debate was experienced by Fiorina. In the 24 hours prior to the debate, 65 percent of all the tweets mentioning her were positive. However, by the time the debate ended, that number had dropped to 53 percent. It was the largest decrease in sentiment experienced by any major candidate; although, it should be noted, Fiorina’s sentiment level going into the debate was also the highest for anyone on the stage.

Ever since she emerged the obvious victor in the debate of lower-polling candidates in August, Fiorina has experienced a significant boost in stature. When Trump was quoted in Rolling Stone making derogatory comments about Fiorina’s appearance, it built further appreciation for the difficulty of being the only female candidate in the GOP field.

But despite memorably engaging with Trump about his comments during the debate, Wayin’s analysis showed that the majority of tweets mentioning Fiorina were about her attacks on Planned Parenthood. During the debate, Fiorina challenged Democratic front-runner, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to watch undercover videotapes from Planned Parenthood showing, “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain,” and emerge still supporting the organization.

While the tape to which Fiorina was referring doesn’t technically exist, her impassioned oratory was one of the most memorable moments of the night. Wayin’s data shows that, when people tweeted about Fiorina, they were probably talking about her in relation to Planned Parenthood.

During the 24-hour period including and surrounding the debate, there were nearly 11,000 tweets about Fiorina and Planned Parenthood—it was the top term. However, according to Wayin’s Jordan Slabaugh, only 25 percent of the tweets about Fiorina and Planned Parenthood were positive about the candidate. “We saw her [positive sentiment] drop by more than half of where she started due to policy-specific conversations related to Planned Parenthood,” Slabaugh said.

Fiorina’s positive sentiment dropped because the conversation swirling around her candidacy suddenly became intertwined with a contentious policy issue—abortion—rather than her simply her personality, business history, and being a target of Trump’s sexist tirades.

Speaking of which, Trump’s positive sentiment also dropped, but to a much lesser degree than Fiorina. He started the debate at 48 percent positive and ended two points lower. 

The two terms associated most with Trump during the debate were “respecting” and “faces,” indicating that, while the conversation around Fiorina pushed into the realm of policy, everyone was still talking about Trump’s personality.

However, the small size of Trump’s drop indicates that, at this point in the campaign, the narrative around Trump is relatively stable and no amount of controversial behavior from the candidate will change that.

Bush was the subject of the third-most tweets about the debate and his biggest keyword was “marijuana,” which stemmed from a moment when he admitted to smoking pot as a teenager. Bush appended his statement by apologizing to his mom. When Bush’s official campaign Twitter account quickly tweeted “Sorry Mom,” that generated more than 28,000 retweets.

Even though the moment humanized the candidate, Bush’s numbers still fell from 34 percent positive down to 30.

The candidate who experienced the biggest bump in positive sentiment didn’t actually particpate in the same debate as Trump, Fiorina, and Bush. Sen. Lindsey Graham had a standout performance in the debate between four lower-polling candidates held immediately prior to the main event. Graham saw a surge of mentions during the debate, about 26,000, and those pushed his positive sentiment up to 48 percent—higher than either Bush or Trump.

So, according to Twitter, Graham won the debate.

Photo via Gage Skidmore / flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Sep 18, 2015, 5:13 pm CDT