How Social Media Responded to the First Presidential Debate

Last night, the first Presidential Debate of 2016 was held. Though it may feel like the campaigns have been endless, fact-check (pardon our pun): they are actually nearing their close. This was a much-hyped event, and what we saw on Twitter throughout the evening reflected the gravity of the proceedings.

Typically, when looking at social response to an event there are one or two moments that stand out above all the others, but once things got rolling last night, there was very little slowdown. However, some topics and lines from the candidates did cause small spikes in social volume. We’ve called out the major moments in the graph below. The first peak came when Clinton mentioned that her campaign website would be fact-checking Donald Trump all night. Another came as Trump painted a bleak picture of African-American communities. Trump also generated a sizable social response by claiming he has “the greatest temperament” and again at the close of the debate when he defended misogynistic comments he’d previously made about Rosie O’Donnell.

Throughout the night, the sheer volume of conversation was astounding. For the debate hashtags alone there were more than 6.3 million Tweets. To put this into perspective, the Super Bowl—which was three and half hours longer—generated 6% less conversation than last night's debate.

Top Topics

The night was loosely themed around three topics—America’s Prosperity, America’s Direction, and Securing America—chosen by moderator and NBC News anchor Lester Holt. While taxes saw the greatest share of voice of any topic, it wasn’t because of a discussion of tax policy. Instead, this topic rose to the top of conversation because Lester Holt brought up Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns. There was also a lot of discussion by 2nd Amendment advocates throughout the night, and the third-most discussed topics were those related to the economy and jobs.


For self-identified supporters of each candidate–those who put terms like #imwithher or #maga in their Twitter bios—we also checked the tone of their Tweets throughout the night. Both groups were optimistic as the night began but very quickly shifted to a majority negative tone. Keep in mind, though, that this doesn’t mean that they weren’t supporting their candidate. Instead, they were more frequently reacting with outrage, derision, or disbelief.

Top Geographies

We also broke out the above group of supporters to see where they were most heavily concentrated. Clinton had a base in democratic strongholds of California and New York, but also the swing state of Pennsylvania. Conversely, self-identified Trump supporters tweeted from Texas, Arizona, and Nevada, demonstrating his support base in western states.

Top Content

Even with this deluge of content there was one clear winner on Twitter. The three most shared debate-related content items all came from Hillary Clinton, with this one being the most shared:

So why pay attention to volume, sentiment, and geography of social support? Because what Americans choose to say on social about the debate is more relevant now than ever. Responding to a question about temperament last night, Hillary Clinton used Donald Trump’s reaction to tweets as evidence that his temperament—and therefore that he—is ill-suited for the job: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” It’s a line from her stump speech, one she has repeated. The line resonates with her audience precisely because Americans understand the nature of the platform and therefore can view presidential candidates through the lens of it. It’s true for Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, and more. Consider social another grading criteria on a rubric. Now it’s up to us to decide who earns top marks—and the job of president.

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Jason Smith is a Senior Analyst at Spredfast and works to find the underlying story the data is trying to tell. When he isn’t breaking APIs and making charts he can be found playing music around Austin. Follow him on Twitter for general nonsense and various complaints.