GOP Debate: Policy Over Personality and the Digital Conversation

By Cosmo Macero Jr.

Cosmo Macero Jr.With the stakes extremely high for Florida’s two entries in the Republican presidential primary race, an analysis of social media conversations around last night’s GOP debate suggests Marco Rubio stood out measurably on key economic issues, while Jeb Bush mostly fell flat.

Meanwhile front-runners Donald Trump and Ben Carson – based on data from social media monitoring tools, providing real-time feedback – both left the debate stage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin still riding overwhelmingly positive sentiment from the social media universe.

While the main debate last night and an earlier undercard debate of lower-polling candidates featured a total of twelve individuals – the O’Neill and Associates analysis sought to measure, through social media conversations, the performance and impact of four candidates widely believed to have had the most to gain or lose in Milwaukee.

O’Neill and Associates used digital monitoring tools to examine more than 20,000 social media conversations nationwide across a dozen platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr, and other blogs and news sources – and to zero in on four key candidates in last night’s Fox Business Channel debate: Trump, Carson, Rubio and Bush.

For Rubio, the Florida senator, the debate was considered an opportunity to seize the spotlight on economic issues and stand out from the crowd of a dozen candidates fighting for a fraction of visibility and electorate mindshare behind Trump and Carson.

For Bush, the former Florida governor, it may have been the last opportunity to show that “Jeb Can Fix It,” as he tried to jumpstart a campaign that has failed to excite GOP voters.  And with the economy the topic on the table, it seemed that Bush may have finally been presented his opportunity to flourish: talk about policy and the issues.

The social media analysis supports the initial conversations of news outlets: Rubio appeared to meet the challenge, while Bush may have come up short.

In fact, Rubio dominated the conversation regarding jobs, taxes and the economy – leading all four candidates in social media mentions on those topics, which were billed as the key issues of last night’s debate. Among the four candidates measured – Rubio mentions represented 30 percent of the conversation on jobs, taxes and the economy, while Trump grabbed 25 percent, Bush 23 percent and Carson 22 percent.

Additionally, Rubio’s presence and performance were substantial enough to dominate the overall social media conversation. By 10 p.m. last night – Rubio’s share of all debate-related social media conversation among the four candidates measured was outnumbering the next closest candidate, Carson, by a ratio of almost 3 to 1.

Bottom line: people are talking more and more about Marco Rubio.

On the other hand, Bush, despite winning a few soundbite moments, was unable to rise above the others on key economic issues or move the needle on overall impressions of his candidacy.

Indeed, the measure of overall sentiment about Bush as a candidate continues to be overwhelmingly negative, according to an analysis of the social media landscape during the debate. Sentiment toward Bush – expressed through positive and negative keywords and hashtags – was 45 percent negative throughout the duration of the debate. By comparison, Carson’s negative sentiment is only 25 percent, Trump’s is 28 percent and Rubio’s is 35 percent.

Many candidates have come under attack by the media and the public for their truthfulness – or lack thereof – both on and off of the debate stage. Carson, in particular, has faced extensive questioning in recent weeks about statements he made about his past and in his biography.

While Carson used the structure of the debate to his favor – one that focused on policy over personality – lingering questions about his overall honesty and accuracy surfaced. The highest trending URL shared with his name across social media during the debate was a New York Times interactive Fact Check of the Debate. However, he skillfully deflected accusations of his dishonesty by directing the conversation to Hillary Clinton and her truthfulness, which resonated across social media and kept his negative sentiment in check. In fact, when measuring the conversation around the issue of honesty and truthfulness, analysis found that Carson succeeded in turning the conversation to the issue of Hillary Clinton with the top trending keywords within the conversation, including, “Hillary is a liar.”

Carson and Trump both continue to register a net positive sentiment based on social media conversations, with overall sentiment toward Carson now 38 percent positive and Trump at 32 percent positive.

Bush and Rubio have similar levels of positive sentiment (27 and 29 percent, respectively), but the gap widens further in Rubio’s favor, by a full 10 points on the negative side, as well as with the sheer volume of conversation shared.

Cosmo Macero Jr. is a Senior Vice President with O’Neill and Associates. Reach him by email: cosmo@oneillandassoc.com; on Twitter @CosmoMacero; or by phone – (617) 646-1017