You may think the clear winner in the GOP debate last night was Trump, because he racked up the most mentions – but that all really depends on your definition of “winner.”

With two debates happening the same night and sheer quantity of Republican candidates to pick apart, the night was destined to be a big one on Twitter. And it didn’t disappoint.

The first debate, as we all now know, belonged to Carly Fiorina, with 100,000 tweets registering during that period and 40,000 mentioning her specifically. And that wave carried over and helped build the crest we saw in the second debate, which culminated in 1.2 MILLION mentions per hour (an exceptionally massive showing by any measure).

But here’s where going “by the numbers” gets misleading.

Although everything Donald Trump said trended upwards, meaning experienced an immediate and significant increase in mentions, numbering in the thousands and trending on Twitter every few minutes, the net sentiment DROPPED at a significant rate. After the first half hour of this second debate, mentions were up over 550% to over 500k per hour. Sentiment was down 13%.

Mike Huckabee Social Issues

It’s important to note that sentiment dropped as mentions increased during the first debate as well, but by much less. And Carly Fiorina’s performance in the first debate not only carried over into her being a trending topic at the beginning of the second debate, it led to her being third in overall mentions and highest in Net Sentiment. 

Standings After the Debate Last 24 Hours

Some additional data points to consider:

  • Emerging trends before the debate were mostly joke based such as drinking games to play during the debate. Some real issues were trending including thoughts on immigration and Mexico.
  • Rand Paul’s confrontational style lead to many jokes over the course of the evening but it also made him the second most talked about candidate.
  • Trump sparked early controversy by refusing to rule out running as an Independent candidate, if not selected to represent the party. Both mentions and net sentiment rise after this. (Many comments seem to be from Democrats saying that Trump running would be the best thing to happen for the Democrats.)
  • That, combined with Trump’s response to the question about this negative treatment of women (with a shot at Rosie O’Donnell) lead to Trump as an emerging topic. (Also a –6% change in net sentiment)
  • Moderator, Megyn Kelley’s question about abortion resulted in negative reactions, both toward Kelly around the way she asked the question and the way Scott Walker answered it. At this point, net sentiment dropped to –10%.
  • Questions on immigration dominated the conversation. The phrase “build a wall” was trending. Meanwhile Bernie Sanders (Democratic candidate) tweeted about billionaires buying elections and that was trending for a bit.
  • A string of questions about defense lead to “military” as a trending term, with net sentiment rising to 25 or –10% from where it started.
  • Ben Carson offered what was viewed as a level-headed and moderate approach to ISIS that trended briefly and Huckabee’s comments about freeloading pimps had Twitter riled up. And the “Straight Out of Compton” movie ad was oddly shown in the midst of it all.

Also, as is becoming a trend itself, one of the moderators, Megyn Kelly, was more popular online than most candidates, and was met with both praise and criticism, rivaling that of Candy Crowley’s 2012 moderator performance. Kelly’s mentions increased by 1,311% of normal and her net sentiment was negative with –22%.

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Clearly, the sheer quantity of mentions does not make one the winner, the favorite or mean much of anything on its own really – and this holds true not only for politicians, but brands as well.

Campaign managers and brand managers would do well to dig deeper than trending topics to understand the underlying sentiment happening in the social content being shared. And the best way to do this is through a command center offering real-time visualizations of the conversation, to allow for real-time responses and making a hard stop to re-evaluate, when necessary.

At the very least, as candidates can’t be expected to stop talking mid-debate in response to social sentiment, candidates CAN become more self-aware and gain a deeper understanding of the voters they seek to attract. And the same goes for any business or brand participating on social.

What were YOUR takeaways from last night’s debate and the resulting Net Sentiment? For more information about NetBase LIVE Pulses go here.