After months of anticipation, tonight’s Democratic debate, the first of twelve, marks the official kick-off to the November 2020 presidential election cycle. With 20 Democratic contenders taking the stage and a plethora of hot-button issues to discuss, Zignal Labs was curious to see how online conversations were shaping up ahead of the debates.

With over 34,000 debate-focused mentions and online conversations from the last week driving the data in our platform, we centered our analysis around three main lenses: 1) The Candidates, 2) The Media and 3) The Supporters. Read on to learn the insights we discovered.

The Candidates

With a crowded stage set for both nights, we were curious to see how much attention each candidate was grabbing ahead of the debates. To get the most accurate picture of share of voice (SOV), we broke candidates into two groups based on when they are debating: Night One (tonight’s debate) and Night Two (tomorrow’s debate). We then put everyone together into one joint group to examine overall SOV.

Night One SOV

Caption: SOV numbers for each candidate are as follows – Elizabeth Warren: 53%; Cory Booker 17%; Beto O’Rourke: 11%; Amy Klobuchar: 5%; Tulsi Gabbard: 5%; Julián Castro: 3%; Bill de Blasio: 3%; Jay Inslee 3%; Tim Ryan 1%; and John Delaney: 0%.

When looking at SOV for candidates participating in the first debate (on June 26th), Elizabeth Warren, already one of the most well-known candidates in the race to 2020, unsurprisingly dominates over 50% of the conversation.

Cory Booker and Beto O’Rourke, other early favorites, both manage to grab over 10% SOV each, while the night’s other contenders are all at 5% SOV or below.

Night Two SOV

Caption: SOV numbers for each candidate are as follows – Bernie Sanders: 35%; Joe Biden 27%; Kamala Harris: 16%; Eric Swalwell: 7%; Andrew Yang: 5%; Pete Buttigieg: 5%; Kirsten Gillibrand: 3%; Marianne Williamson 3%; Michael Bennet 0%; and John Hickenlooper: 0%.

When we look at SOV for the second debate (on June 27), the image looks a bit different. With more early favorites facing off against each other in this round, the split is a bit more distributed. While Bernie Sanders takes the lead with 35% SOV, former Vice President Joe Biden is not far behind with 27%. Kamala Harris holds her own with 16%, while other the other candidates all follow with 7% or less.

Night One + Night Two SOV

Caption: SOV numbers for each candidate are as follows – Bernie Sanders: 25%; Joe Biden 20%; Elizabeth Warren: 15%; Kamala Harris: 11%; Cory Booker 5%;  Eric Swalwell: 5%; Andrew Yang: 4%; Pete Buttigieg: 3%; Beto O’Rourke: 3%; Kirsten Gillibrand: 2%; Amy Klobuchar: 1%; Marianne Williamson 1%; Tulsi Gabbard: 1%; Julián Castro: 1%; Jay Inslee 1%; Bill de Blasio: 1%; Michael Bennet 0%; John Hickenlooper: 0%.; Tim Ryan 0%; and John Delaney: 0%.

When we examined all candidates together, the picture changes yet again, although perhaps not unpredictably. When matched up against her fellow big-gun candidates, Night One leader Elizabeth Warren is bested by Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, who take the top two spots. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker follow behind, while other well-known candidates, including Eric Swalwell, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke, among others, find themselves with 5% or less SOV.

The Media

While millions of people are expected to tune into the debates over two nights, many more will read about the debates online. We were curious to see which stories – and media outlets – were influencing public opinion ahead of the debates. Here are the top ten debate-related articles currently trending online:

  1. NBC announces five moderators for first Democratic debate | NBC News
  2. ‘I Just Want A Substantive, Issues-Oriented Democratic Debate,’ Lie Thousands Of Americans Hungry For Unhinged Trainwreck | The Onion
  3. Rare C-SPAN anger flashed in first coverage ban in 40-year history | Washington Examiner
  4. Events Map | Bernie Sanders |
  5. Here are the rules for the first Democratic debate | NBC News
  6. The stage is set for the first Democratic debate. Here’s a primer on Night 1. | NBC News
  7. NRDC Action Fund Bingo Card |
  8. Andrew Yang could be the wild card at the first 2020 Democratic debate | Business Insider
  9. 2019 Democratic Debate Reality Winner Tweetstorm |
  10. How to win the first 2020 Democratic debate: Quit onstage to save the country from Trump | USA Today

The top trending news story is from NBC, announcing the moderators they have chosen for the first debate. While it’s certainly important information to know ahead of the event, it’s likely this article skyrocketed to the top spot due to the controversy over NBC’s picks. See more on this in “The Supporters” section below.

Taking the number two spot is an article from The Onion, which employs its signature wit to skewer viewer expectations ahead of the debate. The top five is rounded out by an article addressing the fact that C-SPAN has been banned from covering the 2020 Democratic Convention in South Carolina, a map of events for Bernie Sanders supporters (including debate watch parties) and another info-sharing piece from NBC News.

When looking at the articles in the bottom of the top ten, things get a little more interesting. Following another primer story from NBC, we see a feature piece on Andrew Yang and his chances from Business Insider, a cheeky opinion piece from USA Today and a debate-watching bingo card from the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), a non-profit international environmental advocacy group.

Perhaps most interesting is a website in support of Reality Winner, a former N.S.A translator who was imprisoned for leaking a Russian election hacking report. The site, in trying to create a “Tweetstorm” (essentially a targeted swarm of Tweets), offers her supporters pre-approved social copy and hashtags they can employ during the debate to bring some attention to her case.

The Supporters

Finally, we examined the supporters – who we define as anyone, most likely someone from the general public, who supports a candidate through a mention or story online. Seeing as supporters drive a large part of online conversations, we examined several different perspectives.

Word Cloud + Emoji Cloud

Operating with a wealth of data, our platform-generated word cloud shows a wide variety of thoughts ahead of the debate. While “democratic” unsurprisingly dominates the center of the word cloud, we see other election- and debate-linked words push their way to the top, including “candidates,” “NBC,” “June,” “presidential” and “primary,” among others. 

Bits and pieces of some of the most popular candidates’ names, including Joe Biden, Andrew Yang and Bernie Sanders, are also represented in the cloud. Other words that anticipate some of the debates’ likely tactics – “self-promotion,” “mudslinging,” “free-for-all” – paint a somewhat pessimistic view of the night.

The emoji cloud, while offering a slightly different perspective, remains in line with the information presented by the word cloud. The “rolling eyes” emoji corroborates a seemingly unenthusiastic approach to the upcoming debates, while the rest of a cloud is a sea of emojis primarily representing patriotism (the American flag emojis) and the candidates themselves (the various “people raising hands” emojis).

Top Hashtags

Often a rallying point for supporters watching and expressing opinions around the debates, we were curious to see which hashtags were trending ahead of the debate. Here’s the top ten:

  1. #demdebate
  2. #realitywinner
  3. #askabouttheclimate
  4. #baddem
  5. #tweet4reality
  6. #bernie2020
  7. #nbc
  8. #wethepeople
  9. #trump
  10. #democraticsocialism

While there are a few expected operational hashtags in the group (#demdebate, #wethepeople, #nbc and #baddem [a catchall hashtag for annoyances with the Democratic party]), the others offer more interesting insights. Remember Reality Winner, whose website made it into the top news stories? Clearly, her supporters are gaining traction, with two cause-approved hashtags already in the top ten ahead of the debate. 

The #askabouttheclimate hashtag, urging NBC moderators to ask candidates about climate change during the debate, also makes it into the top ten, while polar opposites Bernie Sanders and President Trump are also in the top ten with competing hashtags (although Bernie comes out on top).

Top Tweets

Finally, we took a look to see which Tweets (ranked by number of Retweets) were trending ahead of the debates. The short version? Anger around lack of diversity amongst NBC’s moderators, anger at the cost to attend the debate in Miami, a call for donations from Bernie and the rules for a drinking game.

1. Calling out NBC’s choice of debate moderators

2. A debate-themed drinking game

3. The high price of attending the debate in person

4. A rallying call from Bernie to his supporters

5. More anger at NBC’s choice of moderators


While only time will tell how the debates will turn out – and how each candidate will fare – if the data tells us anything, it’s that the next two nights are going to be anything but quiet.

Eager for more data-driven analysis around Election 2020? We’ll be back on Friday with some post-debate analysis. In the meantime, check out our latest special report series, visit our Resources page or get in touch with our team to request a demo.