Paul RyanJoe BidenThe vice presidential debates drew 3.5 million tweets Oct. 11 from across the nation in 90-minutes, largely reacting to candidates’ heated exchanges and sparring more than specific domestic or foreign issues.

Two University of Missouri professors, Mitchell S. McKinney and J. Brian Houston, are heading up a team of researchers as a part of their Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute fellowship to examine how viewers throughout the nation respond via Twitter to the candidates and their performances during the debates. McKinney is nationally known for being an expert on debates.

Their goal is to harvest these tweets and understand the impact of social media on citizen’s political engagement. They are partnering with three major newspapers in the U.S. to help gather these tweets — Seattle Times (#STdebate), Florida Times-Union (#jaxdebate) and Dallas Morning News (#dmndebate).


Graphs of the debate tweets (click to expand)

The most tweeted moment during the debate — with about 7,500 tweets per minute — followed Vice President Joe Biden’s challenge that Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s plan to cut tax rates, while still protecting middle class taxpayers, was mathematically impossible.

“Jack Kennedy lowered taxes, increased growth,” said Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan.

“Oh, now you’re Jack Kennedy?” Biden countered.

A Seattle tweeter wrote: “Best line tonight.”

The second most tweeted moment — with about 5,500 tweets per minute — was Ryan mocking Biden’s constant interruptions. “Mr. Vice President, I know you’re under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground,” referring to President Barack Obama’s lackluster performance at last week’s debate. “But I think people would be better served if we don’t keep interrupting each other.”

Another Seattle tweeter said, “Oh, the Biden Smile.”

The third most tweeted moment — with about 5,250 tweets per minute — came when the moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News asked about the two candidates’ Catholic faith and views on abortion.

Raddatz drew praise for how she handled the debate. “Raddatz’s defense credentials are clear. Her interrogation of Biden is forceful. His response is equally forceful,” tweeted one Seattle viewer.

A Jacksonville tweeter said, “Biden refuses to impose his Catholic views on other faiths, addressing abortion.”

The fourth most tweeted moment — with about 4,750 tweets per minute — came after Ryan criticized the administration for “crony capitalism” and “corporate welfare,” in doling out stimulus funds. Biden quickly countered that Ryan himself wrote two letters seeking stimulus funds for some of his Wisconsin constituents.

“Biden’s got Ryan on the stimulus #bigtime,” tweeted one viewer.

“The fifth spike — with about 4,500 tweets per minute — came during the discussion on the role of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Dallas Tweets

The debate drew nearly 700 Tweets from readers of the Morning News, with strong reactions to both the candidates’ sparring and issues of defense spending and jobs.

The highest spike among Dallas tweeters came when Ryan charged the Obama’s defense cuts made the U.S. look weak. Biden countered: “With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey.”

A Dallas tweeter said, “OK, I think we’ve answered the “Will Joe Biden be aggressive question?”

The second spike in tweets came when Biden went on the offensive about what the Obama administration did to help the economy, such as saving General Motors, while Romney opposed it. “But it should be surprised for a guy who says 47 percent of the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives,” said Biden.

“Junkyard Joe just went rabid on Ryan,” said one Dallas tweeter.

The third spike in Dallas tweets came after the exchange of Medicare and entitlements with Ryan recalling how his mother and he benefited from Social Security. “They will tell the current senior voters ‘You’re okay’ but sucks for 30 and under,” tweeted one Dallas viewer.

Jacksonville (Fla.)

The most frequent terms tweeted in reference to Biden were “laughing” and “Jack Kennedy.” In Jacksonville, one tweeter said, “I think Biden is laughing a bit too much. It’s better strategy than looking down at your notes, but really.”

Vice Presidential vs. Presidential debate

According to Twitter, the tweeting was just about one-third the level of last week’s first Presidential Debate, which drew 10.5 million tweets in 90 minutes.

Vice presidential debates often draw about half the viewers as presidential debates, according to Mitchell McKinney, an expert on debates.


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