Gym-tan-laundry over taxes-jobs-politics? From a look at social media, at least, eyes were turned to the Jersey Shore over the Ames Republican presidential debate Thursday night. In the absence of polls gauging the reactions of the debate's viewers, though, data on the few Twitter and Facebook users who did watch the debate could give us some hints about how it played out for the GOP presidential hopefuls.
Social media users are a self-selecting crowd. A recent Pew Internet & American Life Project report found that Twitter users were especially likely to be young (50 percent age 35 and under) and female (64 percent). Facebook users were similarly skewed towards the young and the female. So social media buzz doesn't necessarily reflect how a broader audience might feel about the debate.
That said, the vast majority of Twitter users were busy discussing anything but the debate Thursday night. According to the Twitter tracking site Twend.it, which compiles data on the top trending topics on any given day, the Republican debate and related topics didn't even break into the top ten the day of the debate. Instead, Twitter users were discussing topics including "Derek Bieber" and "ScaryMovieRulesToLiveBy." By 10:38 p.m., as the debate continued, Twitscoop.com, another tracking site, showed that tweets about the show "Jersey Shore" dwarfed those about the GOP debate.
Even among the subset of social media users spending the evening tweeting about politics, tweets about Barack Obama outstripped mentions of any of the Republican candidates. According to data compiled by Viralheat for The Huffington Post on tweets, Facebook posts and other social media mentions between 8 p.m. Thursday (an hour before the debate started) and 11:30 a.m. on Friday, Obama was mentioned a total of 7251 times, beating the most-mentioned Republican candidate by almost 3,000 mentions (though mentions of Obama were not as intensely positive).
So who garnered the most buzz during the debate? As measured by Viralheat's total mentions, Ron Paul comments topped those about any other candidates by a long shot -- 4,304 tweets mentioned Paul, compared to 3,252 that mentioned Mitt Romney and 2,602 for Michele Bachmann. Paul has gained a reputation for having very intense supporters, especially online, but that intensity has so far failed to translate into solid support, either for his presidential run in 2008 or so far in the polls this year. Jon Huntsman trailed the pack with only 753 comments.
The percentage of social media mentions about each candidate that Viralheat classified as "positive," "negative," or "neutral" told a different story, however. Bachmann held the highest percentage of positive mentions (74 percent), followed very closely by Herman Cain (73 percent) and Paul (72 percent).
While Obama had more mentions on social media sites during this time period than any of the GOP candidates, only 59 percent of those mentions had a positive sentiment. Only two GOP candidates, Gingrich (58 percent and Santorum (56 percent) had a lower percentage of positive mentions. Perhaps not surprisingly, as this was a debate between Republicans, Obama had the highest percentage of negative mentions at 31 percent.
So what does all this actually mean for the candidates? It could mean more for those who failed to garner many mentions -- especially many positive mentions -- than for the candidates who came out on top. The lack of either positive or negative sentiment for Santorum, Gingrich and Huntsman may suggest they haven’t yet made an impact on many of those interested in the GOP race.
How that buzzy quality translates to power in the polls remains to be seen. But for candidates looking to gain a foothold in the polls, the poor performance in Twitter buzz suggests this debate failed to galvanize support.