What Would You Ask? Adding the Public’s Voice to the Presidential Debates

By Shawn Musgrave

With hours to go until the second presidential debate, the speculation was about what topics Trump and Clinton would be asked to tackle. Following release of the 2005 “hot mic” video of Trump engaged in vulgar conversation with TV personality Billy Bush, some are guessing the questions posed in this debate’s “town hall” format will focus on personal matters and temperament, and perhaps steer clear of policy.

In the first half of this debate, inspired by the classic town-meeting model, citizens attendees will directly pose questions to the candidates. In the second half, the moderator will pose questions “based on topics of broad public interest as reflected in social media and other sources,” according to the Commission on Presidential Debates. Earlier this year, the commission announced that, in order to bring the social media public into the debates, it would partner with a handful of organizations including The Electome.

For this purpose, we built a dashboard that makes it easy for journalists covering the debates (and all other election events) to write about and visualize the Twitter public’s response. The dashboard is at electome.org and journalists are invited to use it from now through Election Day. In addition, we have provided briefing books to all the debate moderators with suggested questions based on our analytics.

Meanwhile, an independent submit-a-question website sponsored by the Open Debate Coalition has been collecting questions, urging the public to vote on them and offering the results to the debate moderators as an alternative snapshot of the public’s priorities.

How do the two signals compare?

Based on Electome data since January of this year, the top policy topics on Twitter have been, in order of prominence:

  • Foreign Policy/National Security
  • Economic Issues (including Jobs/Employment, Budget/Taxation, and Trade as well as Economy)
  • Immigration
  • Racial Issues
  • Terrorism

However, since the party nominating conventions, two additional issues — Guns and Environment/Energy — have seen brief spikes on Twitter. The first came in August for guns, following Trump’s “Second Amendment people” remarks. Then, during the first presidential debate, Guns broke into the top 5 policy topics on Twitter.

Environment/Energy has consistently lagged as an issue. Since January, it’s accounted for just 2 percent of policy tweets. However, during and after the first presidential debate, it had a brief spike on Twitter prompted by Clinton raising Trump’s one-time contention that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

Do such shifts in the social media discussion tell us anything about what the general public is thinking? After all, Twitter is not a perfect mirror of the public. In fact, over at the Open Debate site, Guns and Environment have been getting even more traction over the last two weeks.

As of this afternoon, 3.7 million votes had been registered on the various debate questions proposed on the site, and dueling gun-related questions currently dominate the leader board. The most popular debate question asks asks how the candidates will ensure that the Second Amendment is protected, while the number two question asks whether they support criminal background checks for gun sales.

Two gun-related question submissions have jockeyed for the top slot on the Open Debate Coalition’s platform for several days. (Last accessed 6:40pm EST.)

The National Rifle Association promoted the first Second Amendment question by tweeting it to that organization’s followers. The second question got support from tweets by gun control advocates including the Center for American Progress and actor-turned-activist George Takei.

Combined with a third gun question a few slots down, this issue lead all other upvoted topics in the Top 30.

The Environment issue similarly punches above its Twitter weight on the Open Debate forum: three of the Top 30 most popular questions focus specifically on how candidates will address climate change.

Other election issues that don’t get huge attention on Twitter, such as Social Security and Education, have risen to the top tiers on Open Debate. Even wonky government reform topics like term limits and gerrymandering are in the Top 30 mix.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that two very different public platforms offer different takes on the public’s take on this election. But as the second presidential debate approached and Trump’s personal scandal dominated the campaign coverage, both bodies of data offered a reminder that, for many Americans, the ideas driving the election — the policy issues — still matter.