The Numbers Behind the Fourth Democratic Debate

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Sunday night’s presidential debate on NBC marked a shift in what has thus far been a remarkably cordial race among Democrats. In looking at data collected by the InsideGov team, the debate provided a window into how contentious the nomination process has become during the last few weeks within the Democratic Party.

Stylistically, the gloves certainly came off in a number of exchanges between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Both talked over each other, and although Sanders always tends to speak in a bit of a yell, Clinton turned up her volume quite a bit, her voice at times hoarse. Clinton also repeatedly hit Sanders on his inconsistent support of President Barack Obama, at one point saying Sanders called Obama “weak.” The ensuing disdainful side-eye from Sanders in many ways encapsulates the current state of politics in America.

For the first time this cycle, Sanders talked the most during the debate. In each of the previous three, Clinton logged the most speaking time of the candidates onstage. Although it made sense the far-and-away frontrunner would talk the most during earlier Democratic showings, Clinton’s top-tier status has dwindled significantly in recent weeks.

In Iowa, where the first caucus of the primary season takes place Feb. 1, Sanders is now neck-and-neck with Clinton. Not only is Sanders’ surge in the polls coming at a prime time for his campaign, it’s also mirrored in the amount of time he spoke during Sunday’s debate.

Indeed, even the subjects discussed during the debate seem to reflect Sanders’ new heightened standing. Moderators posed questions about the economy and Wall Street reform — issues central to Sanders’ campaign — more than any other topic. And topics much more in Clinton’s wheelhouse, like foreign policy and health care, weren’t addressed as much.

But Clinton’s camp might be more concerned about what was happening online during the debate. Using Google Trends data, which measures how often keywords are looked up on the search engine, InsideGov shows that interest in Sanders was higher throughout the evening.

While this certainly doesn’t spell doom for Clinton’s candidacy, it feeds into the narrative that (a) voters feel like they already know everything about the former first lady, and (b) there’s an unfamiliar, almost exciting air to Sanders. That’s a disconcerting position for Clinton to be in a few weeks out from Iowa, which dealt her a surprising defeat in the 2008 primary contest.

After the Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire holds the first primary votes of the nomination process on Feb. 9. The Democratic candidates will meet next on Feb. 11, for a debate moderated by PBS.

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