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Who's winning the NDP debates? Ask Twitter

A Twitter page is displayed on an Apple iPhone in Los Angeles October 13, 2009.


Forget the knock-out punch. Twitter is the new measure of political debate performance.

During the NDP leadership debate Sunday in Halifax, candidates' teams were closely monitoring Twitter for ups, downs, spikes and critiques of their performance.

Paul Dewar's campaign discovered that the Ottawa MP's opening joke about Defence Minister Peter MacKay and his penchant for using DND helicopters provoked "particularly positive discussion," says Mr. Dewar's spokesman Joe Cressy.

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"When I came in today I saw a helicopter hovering over the debate venue. I think even Peter Mackay is trying to sneak in to our debate today," Mr. Dewar had said. He was the first of the eight candidates to open the debate.

In addition, Mr. Cressy notes their social media team saw positive mentions on Twitter after Mr. Dewar talked about his time as a stay-at-home Dad in response to a question on child care and in his closing statements when he mentioned the iconic NDP leader Tommy Douglas.

"We also noticed a frequent trend whereby people commented positively on the way Paul weaved personal stories and examples into his answers," says Mr. Cressy.

The Dewar campaign has put together a "core online team" of 15 Dewar supporters, who Mr. Cressy says, "are very active online on Twitter and Facebook."

"They do the same thing our phone-bankers do," he says, which is to reach out to potential supporters, engage them and identify their issues and support.

Mr. Dewar is considered to be among the top four of the eight candidates in the race, which is to be decided on March 24 in Toronto.

B.C. MP Nathan Cullen's team, meanwhile, analyzed their candidate's debate performance using several free and public websites that gage Twitter traffic.

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Based on their findings, the Cullen team is claiming now that their candidate, considered in the bottom four, is faring better than the national media is reporting.

"The Ottawa bubble's read on this race is a bit off," contends Cullen supporter, Jamey Heath. He knows all about the bubble, having worked as Jack Layton's communications director from 2002 to 2006.

Mr. Heath refers to the Cullen team's debate analysis, written by Pat Casey, who is tracking Twitter traffic with their social media expert: ".... during the debate Nathan's spike in activity is well above any other candidate. Now all candidates will/should have a spike created by their support base working the Twitter machine. But, it is clear that Nathan is picking up a lot of activity outside of his supporter base. In essence, his debate performance is having a bigger effect than any other candidate ... ."

In an interview with The Globe, Mr. Casey cautions that this is not an exact science but simply another way to measure performance.

"That said, having strong results across three platforms does indicate that the majority of Twitter mentions are positive/neutral," he wrote in an email.

Here are some examples of what sites consider positive, negative and neutral:

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Positive: "@nathancullen great to meet you on Saturday. Great performance at the debate yesterday!"

Negative: " ... Nathan Cullen will lose Quebec, if he's leader. He no base there, and his French isn't strong enough"

Neutral: "... @nathancullen is now trending in #Vancouver ..."

Another site, Twitrratr shows that in January @nathancullen was mentioned 1,223 times; 194 were positive Tweets, 993 were neutral and 36 were negative.

Breaking it down by percentage, it showed that 15.86 per cent of the mentions were positive; 81.19 per cent were neutral and 2.94 per cent were negative.

Mr. Casey says the other candidates have very "similar ratios" to Mr. Cullen, noting, however, that he has higher negative numbers than other candidates, including Mr. Dewar, party strategist and front-runner Brian Topp and Toronto MP Peggy Nash.

The Twitrratr site shows Mr. Dewar with 699 comments – 153 are considered positive; 540 are neutral and six are negative.

Mr. Cressy, however, points to the fact that Mr. Dewar has more Twitter followers than his opponents – 7,781 followers compared to 3,824 for Mr. Cullen. Brian Topp has 5,629 followers but he has a French-language account that has 2,228 followers. Mr. Topp's team has used YouTube to release a couple of endorsement videos.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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