Beto's debate gun grab dominates social media

Data: NewsWhip; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

With his blunt words, "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15," Beto O'Rourke saw a bigger spike in online attention than any of his 2020 Democratic rivals in the 3 debates, according to data from NewsWhip exclusively provided to Axios.

Why it matters: O'Rourke identified the right issue at the right moment. Since the El Paso and Dayton shootings, guns have risen to the forefront of the national conversation. For 3 straight weeks, and for 6 of the last 7, stories about guns have generated more interactions on social media than any other issue.

By the numbers: Stories about O'Rourke generated more interactions (comments, likes, shares) on social media following last week's debate than for any other candidate in the previous 2 debates.

  • The 33 biggest articles about O'Rourke last week were all about his position on guns.
  • The slant of those pieces spanned the political spectrum: from straightforward news to cheering from the left and skewering from the right.

The big picture: While online interest in mass shootings typically lasts just 3 weeks after the event, activism around gun violence has been more sustained than usual since the August massacres.

  • Immigration, which had been the top issue throughout much of 2019, is now in second place behind guns.

Between the lines: Spikes in online interest for Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris and Julián Castro have preceded subsequent polling surges in the Democratic primary. But each has been followed by a corresponding tumble back to Earth.

  • Already, O'Rourke has jumped ahead of Cory Booker in polling and pulled even with Andrew Yang.


Our 2020 attention tracker is based on data from NewsWhip exclusively provided to Axios as part of a project that will regularly update throughout the 2020 campaign.

Why this tracker matters: The data on interactions — including likes, comments and shares — highlights an important, but under-appreciated element of an election: the ability to see beyond our own social feeds and understand the broader universe playing out of how candidates and issues are moving the minds of voters.

  1. It measures enthusiasm in a way that traditional polling does not.
  2. The sample size taken from these social media platforms is massive.
  3. Social media is powered by emotion-driven content, and emotional responses are likely to be aligned with a voter's true beliefs in a way that can be masked in polling.

While the volume of interactions does not gauge the sentiment of the reactions, the ability to generate reach allows a candidate to expand the universe of potential voters.

  • Bots also cannot be ignored, and we will point out in this space if there are documented instances of bot activity for certain candidates or issues.

Methodology: This project measures the number of social media interactions generated on stories published about the 2020 candidates and issues.

  • Interactions are calculated from reactions, comments and shares on those stories on Facebook as well as the number of shares from more than 300,000 influential Twitter accounts and retweets and likes on those posts.
  • Tracked published stories come from a defined universe of more than 450,000 domains.
  • A story registers for a candidate or issue if the keyword is mentioned in the headline, summary or URL of the story.
    • Our search format for candidates looks like: "Joe Biden" OR ("Biden" AND ("President" OR "2020" OR "election" OR "Democrats" OR "primary")).
    • For issues, we use a keyword tree for related terms.

See past editions of the tracker here.