Time to talk about the issues — NOT!

by Andrew Heyward and Uzra Khan

Traditionally the presidential debates are a time for voters to focus on the substance of the campaign and for the nominees to air their differences on policy across a wide range of issues.

But this campaign has become even LESS about policy issues over the debate period.

According to Electome data, based on algorithms that filter and analyze all election-related conversation on Twitter, tweets about policy issues have generally represented about 20% of the total throughout the campaign. In other words, roughly 1 in 5 tweets has been about a policy issue rather than the candidates’ personalities, who’s ahead or behind, or other election-related matters. That was the average from January 1st to September 25th, the eve of the first presidential debate.

In contrast, from September 26th through October 11th, that number dropped to 13 percent. In other words, 87 percent of election-related tweets — nearly 9 in 10 — involved something other than policy, such as the nominees’ personalities or the political contest (the horse race) itself.

And the extraordinarily acrimonious second presidential debate at Washington University, the airing of Donald Trump’s lewd caught-on-tape comments about women, and a steady flow of revelations from Wikileaks about the Clinton campaign have driven substantive conversation farther into the background.

We’ve seen at different points in the campaign how news events can provoke conversation about substantive issues. The day after the mass shooting in Orlando in June, for example, there was so much conversation about Guns and other related issues that 29% of the tweets were about policy matters. Policy talk about Immigration ticked up after Trump’s surprise trip to Mexico this summer.

And the debates have driven some conversation about specific issues. Trade jumped from 3 percent of all policy-related tweets about this election to more than 10 percent in the wake of the first debate at Hofstra: the conversation centered around trade deals like TPP and NAFTA. Talk about Taxes spiked dramatically after moderator Lester Holt and Hillary Clinton focused on Trump’s returns. Veterans jumped from 2 percent to 8 percent around October 3rd and 4th, and Health Care made similar jumps around then and after the second debate on October 9th.

But not for long. On October 10th, the day after the vituperative second presidential debate, 88 percent of tweets involved something other than policy matters. And that’s crowding out important issues that the first debate briefly brought to light.

Even if you factor out non-policy tweets and look only at tweets about issues, Trade was down to a 1 percent share of conversation on October 10th. As for Veterans — zero.

Andrew Heyward is a visiting researcher at the MIT Media Lab’s Laboratory for Social Machines. Uzra Khan is a project manager there. Soroush Vosoughi and Prashanth Vijayaraghavan, researchers at the Laboratory for Social Machines, developed the analytics for this post.