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Fiorina Won the Debate, Analytics Say

According to our data-driven scorecard, Carly Fiorina’s confidence shined, while Chris Christie excelled in attack mode and Donald Trump controlled the tone.

09.17.15 5:07 PM ET

The second GOP debate on CNN was a marathon battle, with 11 candidates bumping and jostling for the lead.

We used language analytics to look at content of the debate and we found that on average, the candidates used 14 percent less policy language in the second debate than they did during the first debate. Most of the candidates came prepared for personal attacks and arguments over personal histories.

We attribute this decrease in policy focus to Trump’s lead—he’s least comfortable discussing policy. His usual unflappable level of confidence, however, was belied by his words. Trump’s use of language indicating uncertainty increased 2.2 times from the first debate to the second. Looking back at our predictions from the first debate, let’s see what we learned:

Jeb Bush had to be ready, as Trump made 3.9 times more references to him during the second debate than he did in the first debate. Bush is most comfortable discussing policy, but his use of policy-related language decreased 35 percent from the first debate to the second. But Jeb threw in a surprise personal attack of his own, asserting that he had defeated an attempt by Trump to legalize casinos in Florida. And his candid admission of using marijuana when he was younger created buzz but also distracted from the policy substance.

Carly Fiorina’s use of confident language increased 90.6 percent in the second debate, as compared to the first undercard debate. Fiorina delivered another pointed, direct, and intelligent debate performance. She stole the show by fluidly rattling off world leaders, domestic and foreign agendas, and business knowledge. And her comeback to Trump’s insult about her looks became the most iconic soundbite of the night. 

He may be second place in the polls, but Ben Carson left much to be desired, weakly interjecting his opinion on a crowded stage of loud-talkers and interrupters. He tried to sound Reagan-esque, but was lacking on substance. Dr. Carson still used about a third less policy language than the other candidates.

So who came out on top? Here’s how we scored the debate according to a boxing scorecard:

1.    Clean Punching—Fiorina
In boxing: A clean punch lands flush, not glancing or partially blocked by one's opponent. “Slapping” or “backhanding” is not allowed. In a debate—we consider this to be a direct negative reference to an opponent—an insult or an attack. While there were no knockout punches, Fiorina was the aggressor. She was 90.6 percent more confident in her language last night vs. the first debate, and she delivered multiple flurries of attacks toward Mr. Trump.

2.    Effective Aggressiveness—Christie
Effective aggression is demonstrated when a fighter presses forward, and in doing so, scores more clean punches, or more damaging blows, than his opponent. The only person to make more references to his opponents than Donald Trump in the second debate was Chris Christie. He allocated 22 percent of his 2,276 words to reference eight of his 10 opponents. But he wasn’t negative; his comments displayed more positive sentiment than Mr. Trump’s. We appreciate that he repeatedly tried to shift the conversation and end the bickering as he stared into the camera and addressed the public.

3.    Ring Generalship—Trump
The ability to control the pace and style of a fight is ring generalship. No difference between boxing and debating here. Ted Cruz may have formal debating experience, but Trump has mastered the role of ring general so far. Once again, Trump spoke the most during the second debate (4,072 words) and referenced eight of his 10 opponents (Huckabee, Kasich, and Walker were excluded). It’s worth noting that he’s starting to sound more like a broken record, and will need to better communicate his policy plans. He has promised that those plans are on their way.

4.    Defense—Bush
In boxing, defense is the ability to avoid punishment. In a debate, it’s the ability to deflect the negative attention and focus on your main talking points. While Bush certainly had his mishaps, he eloquently presented himself as an alternative to his “rival” Trump, supported his brother and father, and we believe people will feel empathy toward him. This was our favorite exchange:

BUSH: To subject my wife into the middle of a raucous political conversation was completely inappropriate, and I hope you apologize for that, Donald.

TRUMP: Well, I have to tell you, I hear phenomenal things. I hear your wife is a lovely woman...

BUSH: She is. She’s fantastic.

TRUMP: I don’t know her, and this is a total mischaracterization...

BUSH: She is absolutely the love of my life, and she’s right here...

TRUMP: Good.

BUSH: And why don’t you apologize to her right now.

Now the candidates have a few weeks to lick their wounds.

Noah Zandan is CEO and Co-Founder of communication analytics firm, Quantified Communications.