Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The First GOP Presidential Debate By The Numbers

The top 10 Republican presidential hopefuls arrive on stage for the start of the Republican presidential primary debate Thursday.
Mandel Ngan
AFP/Getty Images
The top 10 Republican presidential hopefuls arrive on stage for the start of the Republican presidential primary debate Thursday.

Thursday night may have been the Donald Trump Show, but the inaugural Republican presidential debate was about more than just the boisterous billionaire businessman.

The number of times candidates and moderators mentioned each country during the first GOP debate.
/ Lauren Leatherby
Lauren Leatherby
The number of times candidates and moderators mentioned each country during the first GOP debate.

We've tallied up the number of times candidates mentioned foreign nations, policy topics, would-be rivals, the GOP's favorite president, and more.

1) Iran was mentioned four times more than China, and defense dominated the foreign policy discussion.

Iran and Israel were at the top of the list of the countries GOP candidates invoked the most, and the Middle East overall dominated Thursday night's foreign policy discussion. Discussion over economic giant China and the U.S. neighbor to the south, Mexico, took a backseat to a national defense-focused foreign policy debate.

Candidates and moderators mentioned Iran more than any other country, for a total of 25 times. Of those, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz mentioned Iran six times and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker mentioned Iran four times. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul mentioned Israel the most, after moderator Bret Baier asked him about his Senate proposal to cut financial aid to Israel and his subsequent change in position on the issue. Trump made three of the four references to Mexico.

International trade took a backseat to defense and immigration when it came to foreign policy subjects in the debate. Candidates mentioned trade only four times, while immigration was mentioned 18 times, and ISIS/ISIL was mentioned 23 times.

2) Candidates mentioned Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama far more than they mentioned one another.

While moderators called on the Republican candidates by names many times throughout the night, candidates didn't go after one another or direct questions to their rivals very often. Trump got the most call-outs from his fellow GOP hopefuls, but the five times Trump was named by others onstage paled in comparison to the number of times candidates mentioned Democratic primary front-runner Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.

Candidates mentioned Clinton or Obama a combined 44 times, according to our count. Walker mentioned the two Democrats the most, discussing Clinton nine times and Obama four times. Both former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Paul mentioned called out Obama or Clinton seven times each, and Cruz made six mentions. The candidates' focus on their Democratic opponents instead of their fellow stage mates could reflect a more relaxed stance the candidates have toward intra-party competition at this early stage in the game.

Interestingly, New Jersey Gov. Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who are among the more moderate candidates, made no mentions of either Clinton or Obama during the debate.

3) Economic, defense, and immigration subjects were brought up frequently, while topics like gun control and Obamacare were not.

Moderators and candidates talked about the economy the most. Some of the policy-related words that were mentioned the most were "tax"/"taxes" at 28 mentions, "job"/"jobs" at 26 mentions, and "economic"/"economy" at 21 mentions.

ISIS actually got slightly more mentions than the economy or economic growth, coming up 23 times.

Immigration was another hot topic at the debate. Of the different immigration-related topics brought up, "border" was the most frequently used word in the immigration debate. The word "immigration" itself was used the second most frequently for 18 mentions.

Candidates and moderators used the word "illegals" to refer to undocumented immigrants three times and the word "immigrants" only once. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Trump, and moderator Chris Wallace all used the term illegals one time each. Wallace also used the word immigrants.

While candidates called for an end to Obamacare, healthcare was not a focus of last night's debate as much as other subjects. Candidates and moderators only mentioned the landmark law eight times.

Topics such as gun control and climate change didn't come up during the debate, except for when Paul said, "I don't want my marriage or my guns registered in Washington."

4) Candidates invoked Ronald Reagan six times

Reverence for the former president is still alive an well within the Republican Party. Paul cited Reagan in their denouncements of the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran, and Cruz used Reagan as an example of someone who would stand up to America's enemies. Trump tried to excuse his changing policy positions by drawing attention to the fact that Reagan had also evolved on many issues. Meanwhile, Kasich cited Reagan's Medicaid expansion to justify his own decision to expand the entitlement program in Ohio. Huckabee cited Reagan's quote, "trust, but verify" to denounce Obama's engagement with Iran.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Lauren Leatherby