How to Score the GOP Debate Like a Fight

This post was originally published on The Daily Beast on September 16, 2015.

The numbers show that the more GOP candidates talk, the more they attack.

The first Republican primary debate confounded conventional wisdom. The debate may have been long on entertainment, but it was short on substance. What did we really learn about the candidates from all of the potshots and pugnacious posturing?

As we anticipate what tonight’s second debate might tell us, we wanted to step away from the snarky tweets, the poll-happy pundits, the Nielsen scores, and the media circus we’ve witnessed so far in the primary and take an objective view of the candidates’ performances in the verbal slugfest. So we ran our data-driven communication analytics on the first debate to identify what to expect tonight.

In the first debate, we found that the more time the candidates spent talking, the more they went after their opponents. In other words, we found a correlation between the number of words a candidate used and the number of references to an opponent.

Take for example Ted Cruz, who used a mere 911 words and made zero references to opponents. In comparison, 3.6 percent of Ben Carson’s 1,120 words mentioned opponents. Perhaps not surprisingly, Donald Trump used more words than anyone else during the first debate (1,809)—and he referenced his opponents 6.5 percent of the time.

Secondly, it was clear that Bush and Trump were the frontrunners, at least as targets of their opponents. Sixty percent of the references made to other candidates were directed at Bush and Trump.

Tonight, it looks unlikely that we’ll see a rise in the use of policy-directed or complimentary language tonight, nor is it likely that any of the candidates will emerge unscathed from the crossfire. Here’s what we expect will happen.

  1. The candidates will avoid the issues. Donald Trump used 54.8 percent less policy language than the overall average of all candidates in the first debate. With Trump leading the field, we expect that the second debate will focus even less on the issues and feature more pushing and shoving for the spotlight.
  2. Jeb Bush will be on the defensive. As Trump promotes his “counter-puncher” brand, we expect that other candidates will engage in more defensive communication. In Bush’s recent Good Morning America interview, when he was asked about some of Trump’s comments, he used 11.3 percent more negative sentiment than he did during the first debate. His use of words like “ridiculous” and “violates” could make their way into the second debate.
  3. Carly Fiorina will come out swinging. Her addition to the top-tier debate could bring an increase in the overall negative emotional language of the debate. The top ten candidates appearing in the first debate used an average of 73.5 percent negative emotion in their language. Although she participated in the second-tier debate, Fiorina’s use of words such as “disturbing” and “destroy” contributed to a much higher negativity score in emotional language for that debate: 92.1 percent. Additionally, we expect to see an increase in her verbal confidence. So far, her language exhibiting confidence increased 2.5 times from the GOP debate to her CNBC interview on September 6.
  4. Does Ben Carson matter? He is rising in the polls, but his medical background, which is devoid of public office experience, has left him with few political topics to discuss. He used less policy language than anyone in the first debate (and used 5.8 times less than fellow political-outsider Donald Trump). We expect him to continue leveraging his neurosurgical career as proof of his commander-in-chief potential, with questionable success.

Per our predictions above, what will happen tonight will be more like a boxing prizefight than a debate. Expect lots of punches, and potentially a knockout or two. To keep score, we recommend using a boxing scorecard. The scoring of a professional prizefight is based on four basic criteria: clean punching, effective aggressiveness, ring generalship, and defense.

  1. Clean Punching
    In boxing: A clean punch lands flush, not glancing or partially blocked by one’s opponent. “Slapping” or “backhanding” is not allowed. In a debate—we consider this to be a direct negative reference to an opponent—an insult or an attack.
  2. Effective Aggressiveness
    Effective aggression is demonstrated when a fighter presses forward, and in doing so, scores more clean punches, or more damaging blows, than his opponent. In a debate, we consider this to be controlling the conversation and the issues. Ted Cruz may have formal debating experience, but Trump has mastered this so far.
  3. Ring Generalship
    The ability to control the pace and style of a fight is ring generalship. No difference between boxing and debating here.
  4. Defense
    In boxing, defense is the ability to avoid punishment. In a debate, it’s the ability to deflect the negative attention and focus on your main talking points.

So, pop some popcorn and get ready for tonight’s second round of the GOP presidential fisticuffs. We’ll be back with a data-driven analysis of the candidates’ wordplay after the fight, er, debate.