By Angela Moon
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ben Carson may be ahead of Donald Trump in the most recent national Republican presidential primary opinion poll but the celebrity billionaire is still the winner on social media.
In the run up to Wednesday night's third debate for Republican candidates, Trump has averaged a score of 7.3 on Thomson Reuters social media sentiment analysis index in the six weeks since the previous debate. Carson, meanwhile, has averaged negative 3. A reading above 0 signals positive sentiment.
For months, despite criticism, gaffes and attacks, Trump held a tight grip on the first-place position in dozens of opinion polls on those seeking the Republican Party's nomination to run in the November 2016 election.
But a New York Times/CBS News poll released on Tuesday showed Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, received 26 percent of the support, ahead of Trump for the first time.
The real estate developer garnered 22 percent, trailing by less than the 6 percentage-point margin of error. The poll of 575 Republican primary voters was conducted Oct. 21-25.
On Twitter, however, Trump generates the most traffic with overall volume of tweets mentioning his name and official Twitter handle (@realDonaldTrump) reaching more than six times Carson's volume (@RealBenCarson).
Using a proprietary algorithm, Thomson Reuters social media analysis tool tracks and aggregates positive, neutral and negative tweets with Republican candidates' names and their official Twitter handles in order to generate a sentiment score. The counts are from a representative sample.
Since the second debate on Sept. 16, an analysis of daily sentiment scores shows Trump has spent far more time in positive territory than Carson, although Carson's recent improvement in the polls has corresponded with his social media sentiment score trending more frequently in positive territory. His score has edged out Trump's on several days in the last two weeks.
On Google, Trump was also the most searched candidate ahead of the debate, according to Google Trends on Wednesday.
But Carson has a strong presence on Facebook. While his Twitter following (825,000) was significantly less than Trump's (4.7 million), his Facebook page was the most popular in the entire 2016 race.
Carson notched up nearly 7.2 million "engagements" on his 138 Facebook posts in October, according to data compiled by social analytics platform, NewsWhip. Engagements consist of likes, shares and comments on posts.
By comparison, Trump generated about 4.8 million engagements on his 62 Facebook posts.
(Additional reporting by Melissa Fares; Data complied by Connie Yee, Thomson Reuters F&R; editing by Grant McCool)