As we noted in our pre-debate blog, impeachment threatened to suck the oxygen out of the room in the Wednesday’s Democratic debate – the fifth of the primary season so far – in Atlanta.

Between the unfolding drama in Congress, the number of candidates on stage, the number of debates that have already taken place – and the fact that the Presidential election is still almost a full year away – every candidate faced an uphill battle to gain attention.

To find out who managed to cut through the noise, we compared Zignal’s Share of Voice (SOV) data in the hours during and after the debate against their SOV in the five days leading up to the debate (for more on the pre-debate SOV and how it compares to polling numbers, check out our pre-debate blog).

Here’s the big picture:

Candidate                  Pre-Debate SOV       Debate SOV         Difference
1. Kamala Harris 13% 17% +4%
2. Bernie Sanders 28% 15% -13%
3. Joe Biden 14% 15% +1%
4. Andrew Yang 14% 14% =
5. Tulsi Gabbard 3% 10% +7%
6. Pete Buttigieg 7% 9% +2%
7. Elizabeth Warren 17% 8% -9%
8. Cory Booker 2% 5% +3%
9. Amy Klobuchar 2% 4% +2%
10. Tom Steyer 1% 3% +2%


The obvious takeaways are that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both had low-key nights, vastly underperforming in SOV compared to their momentum heading into the debate. Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard, meanwhile, gained the greatest share of attention compared to their pre-debate numbers. However, more attention doesn’t always amount to a good thing, as can be seen when we examine each candidate’s SOV over the course of the debate itself.

(Note: In the following charts, we separated the candidates into a top and bottom five based on their SOV on the night, simply to make the charts easier to read. Be sure to pay attention to the left axis when making comparisons between charts.)

Top 5 Candidates by Mentions Throughout the Debate

Bottom 5 Candidates by Mentions Throughout the Debate

It’s clear from the top chart that Kamala Harris enjoyed a strong performance throughout the debate – she is the only candidate who recorded multiple peaks throughout the event, indicating that a variety of points scored well throughout the evening. That’s borne out by the most popular tweets mentioning Harris at the time of each of those peaks.

Here’s her first peak:

And her second:

And the third:

By contrast, most of the other contenders had a single spike of attention throughout the evening. Here’s what each candidate was most mentioned for:

Joe Biden: Rumors about his son (not mentioned in the debate), plus a gaffe where he appeared to forget that Kamala Harris – with whom he was sharing a stage – was a black woman who had been elected to the Senate.

Bernie Sanders: Mentions of Bernie spiked after he discussed his history of support for Palestine. As might be expected, opinions in those mentions were seriously divided.

Andrew Yang: Created a mini viral moment when he answered, “Sorry for beating your guy” when asked what he would tell Vladimir Putin in their first conversation if Yang was President.

Tulsi Gabbard: Proof that extra attention isn’t always a good thing – Gabbard was mostly mentioned in relation to Buttigieg and Harris’ attacks over her meeting with Syria’s Bashar Assad.

Pete Buttigieg: Buttigieg spiked at almost the same moment at Gabbard for a simple reason: his attacks on Gabbard.

Elizabeth Warren: Warren’s most-mentioned period of the evening came early, and was mostly centered around reactions to her wealth tax plans. 

Cory Booker: Created probably the best-known line of the night when he said that Biden “might have been high” when expressing his opposition to marijuana legalization earlier in the week.

Amy Klobuchar: “If you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.” Need we say more?

Tom Steyer: To be frank, Steyer didn’t really have a viral moment. His early spike in the evening was largely driven by people criticizing his being on stage at all.


All told, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the debate was overshadowed by all of the other political hoopla in the news at present. Against that background, Kamala Harris seems to have come away as the evening’s big winner, while Tulsi Gabbard –despite commanding more attention – will not have enjoyed the reception her efforts received in the social sphere.

Once again, candidates at the lower end of the polling tables found it hard to break through; despite landing pithy zingers, both Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar still performed pretty much as expected prior to the debate.

With all of that in mind, the quiet evenings seen by Warren and Sanders are perhaps not a bad thing. In an environment where the biggest spike in attention came after an attack, there seems to be some wisdom in flying below the radar until the field has thinned a little. Similarly, it remains to be seen whether the attacks on Gabbard – and the gaffe by Biden – have any lasting impact on perceptions of electability.

Want more data-driven analysis of current events? Head to our Blog to read the latest edition of the Labs Report, learn more about #TeamTrees or see how candidates were faring ahead of the debate this time last month.