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Social media analysis: 'Bayonets' fail to cut Romney, but overall debate sentiment swings Obama's way

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Campaign social media tracking for Tuesday, Oct. 23. Click the image for the full report.

A majority of social media users believes President Barack Obama did better in this week's foreign policy presidential debate than Republican nominee Mitt Romney did, according to NBC Politics' computer-assisted analysis of almost 1 million posts during and after the debate.

M. Alex Johnson M. Alex Johnson is a reporter for NBC News. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

The data indicate that Obama's attack line about "horses and bayonets" Monday night had less effect than was presumed in the immediate post-debate media analysis — and may even have hurt Obama as much as it helped him, once Romney partisans widely circulated rebuttals from conservative-leaning commentators.

But more commenters cited Romney's frequent agreements with Obama as evidence that he had nothing new to offer on foreign policy, helping Obama's advantage grow as time has passed.

NBC Politics analyzed 988,000 post-debate posts on Twitter and Facebook using a tool called ForSight, a data platform developed by Crimson Hexagon Inc., which many research and business organizations have adopted to gauge public opinion in new media. It isn't the same as traditional surveys, which seek to reflect national opinion; instead, it's a broad, non-predictive snapshot of what's being said by Americans who follow politics and are active on Facebook, Twitter or both at a particular moment in time, and why they're saying it.

Overall, a slim majority favored Obama in comments posted through 1:30 p.m. ET Wednesday:

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That works out to a 51 percent to 49 percent advantage among people who expressed a clear preference for either candidate.

More social media analysis from NBCPolitics.com

Explainer: Can you scientifically quantify social media opinion?

Favorable sentiment swung noticeably as media commentators weighed in with their arguments. For example, Obama initially held a slim advantage the day after the debate:

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A visual representation of the topics people discussed overnight and into early Tuesday morning indicates that people reacted to broad impressions:

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But after commentators and analysts began being heard on the morning television news shows and read in the morning papers, people developed firmer positions as the day progressed. A different visualization breaks out the specific topics people talked about Tuesday — not only Iran and other foreign policy issues, but also economic issues:

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People who favored Romney were impressed by his firmness and his arguments that the administration mishandled the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last month:

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Twitter.com — 1:25 a.m. ET, Oct. 24

People who favored Obama, by contrast, picked up on both candidates' insistence on pivoting toward the economy:

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Twitter.com — 9:36 p.m. ET Oct. 22

What appeared to have been a key moment in the debate came when Obama responded to Romney's assertion that the U.S. military was weaker today than it had ever been, specifically citing what he characterized as the shrinking U.S. warship fleet. Obama's rejoinder lit up Twitter and Facebook.

You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed.

The Hill's Karen Finney and author Goldie Taylor discuss President Barack Obama's "horses and bayonets" debate line.

On Tuesday, however, media organizations — among them The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times — and conservative commentators began running the numbers, and they largely concluded that Obama's zinger wasn't completely justified.

One article in particular, by the commentator AWR Hawkins on the conservative site Breitbart.com, gained heavy traction among conservative commentators on social media, being cited hundreds of times by Romney defenders as evidence that Obama didn't know what he was talking about:

Twitter.com — 11:04 p.m. ET Oct. 23

Facebook.com — 6:33 a.m. ET Oct. 23

Obama supporters began a counterattack Wednesday, widely circulating Rush Limbaugh's remarks Tuesday:

In fact, a lot of people on our side thought he agreed with Obama too much. A lot of people on our side didn't like that debate last night, folks, I'll just tell you. If my circle of friends is any indication, a lot of people thought Romney got his clock cleaned, didn't like it at all, think the election's lost. I'm not kidding you.

The topic dominated pro-Obama discussion late Tuesday through midday Wednesday:

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Twitter.com — 11:23 p.m. ET Oct. 23

Facebook.com — 9:25 p.m. ET Oct. 23

Commentary like that appeared to be taking a toll. Overall, Obama's advantage remained within a couple of points. But then there's the chart just for Wednesday:

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