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Biden May Not Have Won The Debate, But He Still Dominates Media Coverage

After the third Democratic primary debate in Houston last week, former Vice President Joe Biden was still the most-mentioned candidate in both cable and online news, according to data from the TV News Archive1 and Media Cloud.2 But it was Sen. Elizabeth Warren who had the largest gains in media mentions compared with the previous week. Warren also got a boost in a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll conducted using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, where she saw the biggest increase in voters who were considering voting for her after the debate.

All the candidates who participated in the debate got a larger share of online news coverage last week than the week before, similar to the pattern we saw after the first and second debates.

Biden got the most media mentions after the third debate

Share of 15-second cable news clips mentioning each candidate vs. share of online stories mentioning each candidate in a Media Cloud search

Cable TV clips the week of … online stories the week of …
Candidate 9/1/19 9/8/19 diff 9/1/19 9/8/19 diff
Joe Biden 41.6% 43.3% +1.7 43.3% 50.9% +7.6
Elizabeth Warren 18.6 26.0 +7.3 37.2 48.2 +11.0
Bernie Sanders 16.5 14.7 -1.7 40.2 46.1 +5.8
Kamala Harris 7.9 7.5 -0.5 25.1 31.5 +6.4
Pete Buttigieg 7.2 3.4 -3.8 22.8 24.8 +2.0
Julián Castro 2.1 8.8 +6.7 14.0 23.9 +9.9
Cory Booker 8.2 4.5 -3.7 15.7 21.7 +6.0
Andrew Yang 2.4 3.6 +1.3 12.1 20.4 +8.3
Amy Klobuchar 2.1 3.3 +1.2 10.8 18.6 +7.8
Beto O’Rourke 6.3 12.4 +6.1 7.7 12.8 +5.1
Tulsi Gabbard 0.3 0.4 +0.1 3.0 7.0 +3.9
Marianne Williamson 0.8 0.4 -0.4 4.8 5.2 +0.3
Tom Steyer 1.4 0.7 -0.7 3.2 5.2 +2.0
Bill de Blasio 3.7 0.1 -3.6 5.5 4.9 -0.7
Tim Ryan 1.4 0.5 -0.9 2.0 4.3 +2.2
Michael Bennet 0.4 0.1 -0.3 2.2 3.6 +1.5
Steve Bullock 0.7 0.2 -0.5 2.5 3.3 +0.8
John Delaney 0.7 0.3 -0.4 2.0 3.2 +1.3
Joe Sestak 0.0 0.0 +0.0 0.5 1.5 +1.0

Includes all candidates that qualify as “major” in FiveThirtyEight’s rubric. Each network’s daily news coverage is chopped up into 15-second clips, and each clip that includes a candidate’s name is counted as one mention. For both cable and online news, our search queries look for an exact match for each candidate’s name, except for Julian Castro, for whom our search query is “Julian Castro” OR “Julián Castro.” Media Cloud searches use two of the database’s publication lists: “top online news” and “digital native” publications.

Sources: Internet Archive’s Television News Archive via the GDELT Project, Media Cloud

While Warren took the No. 2 spot in media mentions for the week (which includes the days leading up to the debate), if we look only at data from the two full days of coverage after the debate ended,3 former Rep. Beto O’Rourke was mentioned in more in 15-second cable news clips than Warren across the three channels we monitor — CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. During the debate, O’Rourke said “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.” Those comments loomed large in the media coverage of the debate: 38 percent of 15-second cable news clips that mentioned O’Rourke during that time also mentioned “gun” or “guns,” making it the most mentioned word in clips that talked about O’Rourke.4

Biden was still mentioned in more than twice as many cable news clips as O’Rourke in the two days after the debate, though. Unlike after the first debate, when Sen. Kamala Harris came very close to matching Biden’s share of media mentions, the data so far doesn’t show that any other candidate substantially challenging Biden’s hegemony in cable news.

Check out the data behind this series and check back each week for an update on which candidates are getting the most coverage on cable and online.


  1. The TV News Archive measures coverage by splitting CNN, Fox News and MSNBC’s daily news footage into 15-second clips and finding the clips that contain a mention of our search query. Our search queries are the full names of each candidate. The GDELT Television API, which processes the data from the TV News Archive, measures a week of coverage from Sunday through Saturday. The cutoff for measuring coverage for any given day is midnight Eastern Standard Time. (Clock changes for Daylight Saving Time are ignored.)

  2. Our search queries are the full names of each candidate, except for Julian Castro. Since his name is sometimes written with an accent mark and sometimes without, our search query for him looks for “Julian Castro” OR “Julián Castro.” We aggregate the data from Sunday through Saturday of each week to match the queries of TV news. Media Cloud dates articles based on when the article page says the story was published, which means that it is insensitive to time zones and its cutoff times each week may be slightly different than the times used for the cable news data.

  3. Friday, Sept. 13 and Saturday, Sept. 14.

  4. Excluding a list of commonly used words like “a” and “the.”

Dhrumil Mehta was a database journalist at FiveThirtyEight.