#DemDebate: A Digital Analysis

By Senior Vice President Cosmo Macero Jr.

Cosmo Macero Jr.Hillary Clinton entered last night’s Democratic Presidential Debate riding high expectations but facing even higher stakes – with a significant portion of the political pundit class calling it a crucial and even dangerous moment for a campaign that has been unable to shake Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

But the 2 ½ hour debate at Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas took on a largely different tone than the Republican battles that had preceded it. And Clinton largely met the challenge of the night: appearing the most presidential in a crowd rounded out by one fringe political thinker and three candidates with little or no name recognition beyond the Beltway.

O’Neill and Associates used social media listening platforms to analyze conversations on over 20 different social media channels as well as trending hashtags, concepts, mentions, and perhaps most importantly – sentiment.

A targeted analysis of Hillary Clinton mentions in Massachusetts largely reflected what Clinton aides and supporters were celebrating after the candidates left the stage: the debate was, at minimum, a successfully navigated challenge and perhaps a meaningful step forward for Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Her first – and largest – spike came during her introduction with 4,090 mentions, the overwhelming majority of which reflected positive sentiment. By the night’s end, analysis showed that the conversations surrounding her on social media were overwhelmingly positive.

The review of more than 8,000 social media conversations in Massachusetts, most of which took place on Twitter and Facebook, found Secretary Clinton earning either positive or neutral mentions close to 80 percent of the time throughout the duration of the CNN/Facebook-sponsored debate.

Clinton support and interest drove key social media metrics – with trending hashtags such as #imwithher and #hillary2016 appearing in hundreds of conversations originated by Massachusetts social media users. The social media landscape across the Bay State also lent support when Clinton rivals started firing political shots, such as former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee’s early remark that he has been unmarked by scandal.

But Clinton’s big win for the night came courtesy of Sanders, when he forcefully called for an end to the furor over Clinton’s use of private email when she was Secretary of State saying the American people are sick and tired of hearing about Clinton’s “damn emails,”  prompting loud applause as the two shook hands.

The remark become instant social media gold – quickly trending as a keyword and concept in New England – with upwards of three times as many mentions on social media than any other trending phrase of the night.

Ultimately, in the debate, it was Sanders who several times found himself in the position of having to play defense from rivals and debate moderator Anderson Cooper alike: on his gun policy record; for his refusal to serve in Vietnam; and over his questionable electability as a Democratic-socialist.

Throughout the debate, O’Neill and Associates also took a closer look at digital conversations in the New England states, focusing on industry building blocks and issues important to voters such as healthcare, jobs and the economy, education, energy, and immigration. Social media listening tools showed that hashtags related to Sanders were trending anywhere from double to up to seven times more than hashtags in support of Clinton – underscoring the strong support he has garnered.

The debate itself was largely received positively in New England when measured by social media engagement. Almost twice as many debate mentions were classified positive as were negative, according to the O’Neill and Associates analysis – with a large percentage categorized as neutral.

“We’ve seen, firsthand, that ‘buzz’ alone can’t take the place of strong candidates who are thoughtful, experienced and prepared,” said former Lieutenant Governor Thomas P. O’Neill III, founder and CEO of O’Neill and Associates. “We deserve a healthy, honest and substantive debate from presidential candidates who are asking for our vote, and I think the American people got that from the Democratic candidates.”

Most of the candidates occupied common ground on core Democratic issues such as income inequality, the fallout from bank mergers and the mortgage crisis, climate change, college affordability and the plight of the urban poor and minorities in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The O’Neill and Associates analysis also confirmed that social media is leveling the playing field between big media organizations and individuals, by providing a platform and the opportunity to amplify any one individual’s voice. While major regional news organizations like the Boston Globe (@bostonglobe) and Boston Herald (@bostonherald) delivered the highest influencer scores and potential reach, individuals such as Boston tech writer David Weinberger (@davidweinberger), Cambridge journalist Beena Sarwar (@beenasarwar) and Boston entrepreneur Robin Chase (@rmchase) demonstrated that heavy engagement on social media can magnify your message exponentially.

Cosmo Macero Jr. is a senior vice president in the O’Neill and Associates communications practice. Contact him: cosmo@oneillandassoc.com; 617-646-1017; follow him on Twitter @cosmomacero.