I watched one hell of an entertaining debate last Thursday night. Every remark was more contentious than the last. Really smart people were made to look like fools. People I knew nothing about came across as thoughtful and well-informed. I was riveted.

No, I’m not referring to the primetime GOP primary debate on Fox or the ‘junior varsity’ debate that aired a few hours earlier. I never even turned on my TV.

The debate I watched was waged on Twitter and Facebook, where my friends, family members, and a long list of media personalities and strangers ranted about the primary debate and dissected every word. This debate carried into the late hours of cable news post mortems, through the next morning’s radio and newspaper coverage, straight through the gauntlet of Sunday talk shows.

Nielsen tells us that an estimated 24MM people watched the debate live, or roughly 16% of U.S. registered voters – huge numbers by TV-ratings standards but a relatively small portion of the electorate. The number of GOP voters who tuned in was something smaller than that. Based on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, more than a handful of these TV viewers were Democrats, watching sadistically with big bowls of popcorn in their laps. And yet, within 24 hours of the debate, pollsters were trying to anoint the debate winner and measure subsequent movement in the horse race.

Did the ‘real debate’ on TV really matter? It absolutely did. But, in our always-on, socially-driven world of media, the ‘debate about the debate’ matters much, much more. We’ll show you.

A few days after the televised debate and through Monday, we asked the question below to a representative group of US adults aged 18+, irrespective of party registration, likelihood to vote, or whether they watched the debate.

Who Won the GOP Debate?

First, notice the “Not Sure” responses. Though only 24MM Americans actually tuned in for the debate, a full 63% considered themselves well-enough informed to have an opinion a few days later. If that doesn’t speak to the ambient effect of news and social media, I don’t know what does.

The rankings themselves aren’t terribly stunning. Trump wins in a landslide. Kasich, Rubio, and Carson score high marks. Bush and Walker didn’t fare too well.

The numbers were only mildly affected by party registration. 28% of Republicans believe Trump won, followed by Kasich and Rubio at 13%, Carson at 7%, and Ted Cruz at 7%. In all, 82% of Republican respondents had an opinion, though a much smaller fraction actually watched the debate.

Democrats, even from the sidelines, weren’t that different. 23% of Dems believe Trump won, followed by Kasich at 10%, Rubio at 8% and Bush at 5%. 57% of Dems paid enough attention to have an opinion.

Regardless of party affiliation, which likely influences the media and social circles people are exposed to, the narrative was pretty consistent. Trump won. Kasich and Rubio did well. Christie and Paul, not so much.

Then we asked this second question:

Who Lost the GOP Debate?

If you had any doubts about how polarizing Donald Trump is, doubt no more. His detractors, it appears, are numerous and vocal. Paul, Bush, and Christie can’t be thrilled. Kasich, Rubio, and Carson were unscathed. Note that 63% of people had an opinion on who performed best but 69% opined about the worst. There’s a subtext about political cynicism in there somewhere.

What about party affiliation? Trump still stands out across the board – 33% of Democrats believe he performed the worst, versus 18% of Republicans. 15% of Republicans picked Paul, 10% Christie, 9% Bush, and 6% Kasich. Among Democrats, Paul was second-worst at 7%, followed by Huckabee at 6%, Bush at 5%, and Christie at 4%

Given the huge swings for Trump, did he win the debate or did he lose it? There’s probably no empirical way to tell – but we can try. Let’s compute the net value of a candidate’s ‘best’ and ‘worst’ votes. Here’s what we get when we look at the general population:

Net Debate Performance Per the General US Adult Population

Net Performance among General US Adult Population

When we take both the positive and negative votes into account, Rubio, Kasich, and Carson were the only candidates to see a net positive outcome from the debate. Trump finished second-to-worst.

What if we just look at Republicans?

Net Debate Performance Per Registered Republican Respondents

Net Performance among Registered Republican Respondents

Using this simple formula among GOP voters, four days after the debate, Marco Rubio received the highest overall score for his performance. Trump isn’t far behind, having scored far better among Republicans than among the population at large. Overall, six of ten candidates scored in net positive numbers.

According to an NBC/Survey Monkey poll of Republican debate-watchers, 24 hours after the debate, the numbers looked a lot different. Trump’s performance, they determined, was a net ‘negative 10.’ Carson was the big winner. But, new national poll numbers released Monday showed Trump widening his overall lead in the race and Carson seeing only modest gains. How?

Over half of Americans felt they could judge the GOP primary debate without so much as watching it. Maybe we shouldn’t measure the real impact of an event like a televised debate immediately after it happens, among only the people who witnessed it first-hand. What matters, it seems, is the narrative that proliferates and persists after the news and social cycles run their course.

Like it or not, that’s the world we live in.


Photo by Gage Skidmore