The debates and the election conversation on Twitter

Debates are now a regular feature in political campaigns. Candidates facing off draws a crowd. But do they have an impact on the flow of communication in the election? Campaigns are times when citizens share their thoughts about the candidates. Does what they share change from before to after the debate?

In the first debate of the U.S. presidential election the rather standard questions were asked. “If elected, what would you do about one domain of policy after another?” When Biden was answering questions Trump did something unusual. He kibitzed — loudly. He talked over Biden as Biden was answering questions. That received quite a lot of attention in the news media along with answers to the questions.

We look at what citizens did by collecting their communications on Twitter. We did separate searches, for Biden and Trump, two days before the debate, the day of the debate, and two days after the debate. The total was roughly 1,200,000 tweets per day. Seventy percent of tweets are re-tweets, which is persons encountering a tweet and deciding to share it with their followers. We are using the 20 most re-tweeted messages a day for analysis. The number of times a tweet was re-tweeted ranged from 2,000 to 20,000 with an average of 5,000 times. The followers who would have access to the re-tweets numbered in the millions, ranging from 5 million to 40 million per re-tweeted tweet. These tweets were widely shared in the campaign.

September 27 (two days before the debate): The most re-tweeted message in both the Trump and Biden collections was the endorsement of Biden by former Department of Homeland Security Secretary and Governor Tom Ridge (R-PA). Three of the top 20 re-tweets in the Trump collection and five in the Biden collection mentioned this. Five of the top 20 in the Trump collection addressed the president’s taxes. Twelve of the top 20 in the Biden collection were positive; 18 of 20 in the Trump collection were negative toward the president.

September 28 (one day before the debate): The most re-tweeted message in the Trump collection was from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez noting the $70,000 in hairstyling fees Mr. Trump wrote off on his taxes. Again, the most re-tweeted messages in the Trump collection were negative, typically focusing on his tax returns. Only four were positive; two were ambiguous. In the Biden collection, a claim that Biden’s Texas political director was harvesting ballots was most re-tweeted, and it was the focus of two other top 20 re-tweets. Only two of the most re-tweeted messages were positive (with one ambiguous). The attacks on Biden were multi-pronged, including charges of corruption, nepotism, incompetence in dealing with the 2009 swine flu, and election cheating.

September 29 (debate day): The most re-tweeted messages included several focused on the debate. Ten of the top 20 re-tweets in the Biden collection were positive, 8 in the Trump collection. In both collections, the most re-tweeted message was from the candidate. Re-tweets referencing the debate were found only in the Biden collection.

September 30 (day after the debate): The tone of tweets turned more negative in both collections (7 of 20 were positive or pro-Trump in the Trump collection and 6 positive in the Biden collection). Tweets about the debate were prominent in both collections (13 of 20 in the Biden collection and 11 in the Trump collection) including the most re-tweeted message in both collections. Two of the top five most re-tweeted messages in the Biden collection were from Joe Biden, including one calling out the president’s “racist dog whistles” and saying Mr. Trump would not know the suburbs unless he took a wrong turn. One re-tweeted message pointed out that the president’s debate demeanor, widely seen as noxious and belligerent, coincided with Trump’s best hour of fundraising ever.

October 1 (two days after the debate): Debate tweets were still present in the top 20 (6 in the Biden collection, 5 in the Trump collection). Half the messages in the Trump collection were positive, but the only positive ones mentioning the debates were criticisms of the moderator.

The debates clearly became part of the election conversation, both in real time and in the days that followed. What is remarkable is what is not present in the conversation: the candidates’ plans for the next four years. Only two of the most re-tweeted messages addressed the coronavirus pandemic. None spoke to the beleaguered economy. Affirmative rationales for supporting Joe Biden were rare and nonexistent for Donald Trump. Pro-Trump messages focused insinuations of voter fraud, claims of media bias, and personal attacks on Biden’s family. Pro-Biden messages targeted the president’s failure to pay taxes, his inability to condemn white supremacists during the debate, and Mr. Biden’s defense of his family. The tweets over these five days fully reflect the miasma of American politics in the Trump years.