GOP Debate by the numbers: no clear winner as issues take center stage

QC vocal variety

With 60 percent more policy-driven language, Republicans find their voice on the issues (and against the media)

After September’s marathon debate melee, the ten top GOP candidates jumped back into the ring last night for a rematch.

We used our language analytics platform to look at the content of the debate and found that, at long last, the Republicans came ready to focus on the issues, using 60 percent more policy-driven language than in the last debate.

This increase in policy-language seemed to come in spite of candidates’ contempt for moderator questions.  For example:

CRUZ: You know, let me say something at the outset. The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. (APPLAUSE)

This is not a cage match. And, you look at the questions – “Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain?” “Ben Carson, can you do math?” “John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?” “Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?” “Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?”

How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about? (APPLAUSE)

Chris Christie said to CNBC moderator John Harwood

“…even in New Jersey what you’re doing is called rude.”

The candidates’ fight with CNBC started long before the debate began. Donald Trump and Ben Carson spearheaded the push for a two-hour time limit, threatening to drop out altogether if CNBC expanded the time slot. Factor in three commercial breaks, and that left less than nine minutes of air time per candidate.

Under pressure of a time limit, candidates drive hard on the issues

While the initial demand for a strict two-hour limit initially caused some concern, it appears the pressure inspired the debaters to up their game. Last night’s theme was “Your Money, Your Vote,” and the debaters came prepared. As a group, the Republican candidates displayed 23.3 percent more persuasive language than they did in the second debate. For example, by using language to include his listeners in his message and by sharing concrete evidence to support his main points, John Kasich came across as persuasive in the following quote:

You have to deal with entitlements, you have to be in a position to control discretionary spending. You’ve got to be creative and imaginative. Now, let me just be clear, John. I went into Ohio where we had an $8 billion hole and now we have a $2 billion surplus. We’re up 347,000 jobs. When I was in Washington, I fought to get the budget balanced. I was the architect. It was the first time we did it since man walked on the moon. We cut taxes and we had a $5 trillion projected surplus when I left.”

Time will tell whether this strategy will help his long-shot campaign.

Republicans insist on getting down to business; nix bickering in favor of a united front

If the Republican candidates have a reputation for using their platforms for personal attacks, the Democratic debate held earlier this month looked more like a dinner party, with candidates exhibiting 46 percent more collaborative language and 36 percent more issue-driven discussion than the Republicans did in their September debate. This quote from Cruz was far from the only effort to emphasize the candidates’ collective experience and steer the moderators back to the task at hand:

“Let me be clear. The men and women on this stage have more ideas, more experience, more common sense than every participant in the Democratic debate. That debate reflected a debate between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.”

So did the Republicans learn any lessons in etiquette from their Democratic counterparts? It seems so. The amount of collaborative language increased 24.1 percent in the third Republican debate as compared to the second debate.

With no clear winner, look to vocal style to find a leader

After CNBC moderators opened by asking candidates to explain their biggest shortcomings, we wondered whether vocal delivery was a weakness or a strength. After all, no matter how thorough or persuasive the candidates are on the issues, lackluster delivery will make it nearly impossible to get through to voters.

Given a shorter time limit, but a (still) large number of candidates debating on stage and a new laser-focus on policy, the Republicans had to speak quickly to hit all of their main points. On average, the Republican candidates spoke at a rate that was 14 percent faster than the Democratic candidates during their first debate, and 30 percent faster than the average speaker in our communications database.

Viewers get bored and their attention wanders when speakers lack vocal variations like pitch changes and effective pausing. Bush, Cruz and Fiorina used more vocal variety than their opponents—possibly too much at times, as Fiorina’s over articulation and constant pitch fluctuation verged on grating. On the other hand, two candidates — Carson with his methodical speech and Kasich with his intensity — bordered on monotone. We have to wonder, though, is Carson’s style a strategic move? After all, it could be argued that his soft-spoken, thoughtful demeanor is intended to make voters perk up and listen close.


All in all, the Republican candidates were more unified, aligning against the Democratic Party, as well as against the media. After the chaotic mudslinging of the first two debates, the GOP candidates have finally turned to the task at hand: issue-driven discussions. We will see if this strategy continues, and who will be invited to the main stage, in the next Republican debate on November 10th.