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Pundits thought Ben Carson lost the debate, but Twitter shows they're wrong

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ben Carson isn't exactly the most, um, high-energy presidential candidate. He often seems to recede into the scenery — during the first hour of Wednesday's Republican debate, he spoke for just two minutes — and when Carson did get to talk, he put a lot of pundits to sleep.

But man, do the voters love him.

Only Carly Fiorina gained more followers on Twitter than Carson did during the three-hour broadcast. (And Fiorina's success was obvious, unlike Carson's sneaky popularity.) And in the hour after the debate wrapped, both kept adding followers, too.

Here's how many followers each candidate's primary Twitter account added on Wednesday night, beginning when the debate got started around 8:10 p.m. ET and ending at 12:20 a.m. ET on Thursday, an hour after the event wrapped up.

· Carly Fiorina: +25,750

· Ben Carson: +24,973

· Donald Trump: + 13,709

· Marco Rubio: +8,172

· Jeb Bush: +8,165

· Ted Cruz +3,181

· John Kasich: +2,914

· Rand Paul: +2,597

· Mike Huckabee: +1,842

· Scott Walker: +1,471

· Chris Christie: +891

Sure, Twitter numbers aren't a perfect arbiter. Some candidates have multiple accounts, which might have confused their would-be followers. Not everyone uses Twitter; the service skews younger and it's hardly representative. And it's unclear how many of the new followers were simply purchased, or are even spambots.

But Twitter is an oft-useful tool to measure popular interest in a topic, an event — and even a political candidate. Several studies have found clear links between getting momentum on Twitter and building engagement off-line, too.

Sheer volume of followers only told part of the story on Wednesday. @RealDonaldTrump began the night with more than 4 million followers; @RealBenCarson started with barely 600,000.

So a better way to measure impact might be the percentage of new followers that each candidate added across Wednesday's debate. And on that score, Carson — and Fiorina — really separated themselves from the pack.

Twitter followers gained in second gop debate by candidate

Dan Diamond

Looking at the above chart, which also shows Twitter gains by hour, you can really see how users flocked to Carson in the final stretch of the debate between 10:10 p.m. and 11:20 p.m. That was when moderators started targeting Carson with questions, and he got considerably more airtime as a result.

A similar dynamic followed the first GOP debate: Carson spoke little, and pundits weren't particularly impressed by his performance, but he surged in the polls. Voters are seeing something in Carson the political establishment simply isn't.

Judged on the merits, Carson's presidential credentials are weak. So what's the secret of his continued success? As Andrew Prokop writes, Carson's an outsider like Trump and Fiorina, but has an incredibly inspirational life story. He's able to speak with some authority on issues of race and religion that have confounded his rivals.

And his positivity shines through in the debate setting, especially when Carson stays away from fights. The other candidates don't seem to know how to deal with him. Moderators don't always seem excited to engage him.

But the voters? They just keep following him.

VIDEO: Ben Carson on taxes

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