September Presidential Debate – who won?

So, it’s the morning after the debate (UK time) and a lot has already been written about this. This is intended to be a quick blog, so am not going to go into much detail, but am going to address some of the major bits of coverage – notably’s CNN’s initial analysis (here) and a general.

Also, I’ve purposefully not watched the debate as it was on from 1am in the UK and with a small family have better things to do to avoid it influencing the report.

So who won?

CNN put Biden as it’s big winner as he had a great first 30 minutes (albeit started to make gaffs towards the end). Stating the opening 30 minutes is the most crucial as it’s the “time with the highest viewership”.

I’d agree on Biden winning, but dispute their reasoning. If nothing else… Google Trends* data for the US suggests he had a terrible first half hour.

I also checked the data for 8 states: 2 blue states (CA / NY), 2 red states (AL / TN), 4 swing states (FL, PA, TX, WI). And the same pattern appeared with Biden being the second-least-searched of the four major candidates (only ahead of Harris) in all bar California … where he had the lowest share of searches (albeit this is Harris’s home state).

But ratings may be higher in the first 30 minutes. But engagement is (in this case at least) a lot lower with the first 90 minutes having almost half the candidate searches made vs the second half.

This may be because if you’re engaged enough to search based on what people say, you’re engaged enough to stay and watch???

Either way, this was true for both eastern and western states, so not related to it being started in California’s rush hour.

And in these 90 minutes, Biden (followed closely by Harris) was the clear winner.

CNN also highlights Harris’s closing line “And now, President Trump, you can go back to watching Fox News” as being a key one. Search data agrees – see 10:32 in the below graph.

Notably, the biggest moment was from Biden (albeit this could have been due to protesters interrupting him), but Harris had a second line that also got significant engagement. And Sanders also had one.

And Putting these into context, this is how each of the major candidates performed on the night – US wide.

But, the election will (almost certainly) not use the popular vote, and deeply blue / red states will have (at least in theory) very little say. Especially as Trump is so polarising. So who has the best chance against Trump in the swing states?

The answer’s Biden. In every single swing state he out performs all the other candidates. And based on last night’s debate a Biden – Warren joint ticket (possibly a Biden – Harris one) would likely have good appeal. See the gallery for each of these states.

What (for me at least) the search data shows is that gut instinct on what worked / didn’t is often wrong. This can also be seen in CNN’s comment on Andrew yang being terrible and Beto O’Rourke (after Biden) being the big winner.

But outside of the major 4 candidates, Yang had the best night and O’Rourke the worst, not only (with Cory Booker) getting the most searched moments in the debate, but also having significant salience in the hours after the debate.

Note, to simplify what is already a busy graph two candidates were omitted: Pete Buttegieg (who had a solid night, not far off Yang / on a par with Booker) and Kirsten Gillibrand (who got virtually no searches during the debate).

For me, what this shows is that the perceived right thing to say and the actual right thing are often not the same. And gut instinct should be ignored all too often.

There’s a wonderful story in Seth Stevens-Davidovitz’s book Everybody Lies, which highlights this (extract from a promotional article in the Guardian below). In this he also uses Google Trends data to see the effect of an Obama speech following the San Bernardino terrorist attack, given to quell anti-Muslim speech / behaviour.

“He wanted to reassure Americans that the government could both stop terrorism and, perhaps more importantly, quiet this dangerous Islamophobia. Obama appealed to our better angels, speaking of the importance of inclusion and tolerance… The Los Angeles Times praised Obama for ‘[warning] against allowing fear to cloud our judgment’. The New York Times called the speech both ‘tough’ and ‘calming’. The website ThinkProgress praised it as ‘a necessary tool of good governance, geared towards saving the lives of Muslim Americans’. Obama’s speech, in other words, was judged a major success. But was it?

“Google search data suggests otherwise… In his speech, the president said: “It is the responsibility of all Americans – of every faith – to reject discrimination.” But searches calling Muslims “terrorists”, “bad”, “violent”, and “evil” doubled during and shortly after the speech. President Obama also said: “It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country.” But negative searches about Syrian refugees, a mostly Muslim group then desperately looking for a safe haven, rose 60%, while searches asking how to help Syrian refugees dropped 35%. Obama asked Americans to “not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear”. Yet searches for “kill Muslims” tripled during his speech. In fact, just about every negative search we could think to test regarding Muslims shot up during and after Obama’s speech, and just about every positive search we could think to test declined.

“In other words, Obama seemed to say all the right things. But new data from the internet, offering digital truth serum, suggested that the speech actually backfired in its main goal.”

As Stevens-Davidowitz says: “Sometimes we need internet data to correct our instinct to pat ourselves on the back.”

* Google Trends gives a comparative figure for the number of searches, a percentage of the most searched term in specific time period.