The Social Media Response to All 3 Presidential Debates

In case you needed further proof or a not-so-gentle reminder that we’re still in the throes of a highly unprecedented, contentious presidential race, The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Vegas actually saw oddsmakers placing bets on whether or not the candidates would shake hands. (They also bet on how many times Trump might say “rigged,” “tremendous,” or mention Wikileaks). Those who tuned in on Wednesday know that no hands were shaken, and very little respect was traded between the candidates, either. It should come as no shock to anyone following this presidential race that the debates—and the overall rhetoric—have devolved as the weeks pass into almost entirely ad hominem attacks.

Wednesday’s debate comes at a critical time, with less than three weeks left in the general election race. Tens of millions of voters tuned in. Helmed by Fox News’ Chris Wallace in a widely praised performance, the candidates covered six topics: immigration, the Supreme Court, the economy, national debt and entitlements, turmoil abroad and, as the Washington Post put it, “fitness for the presidency.” But as has been the trend, many of the candidates’ responses strayed from straight answers into attacks—the kind of sound-byte-worthy moments that provoke social chatter, in addition to eye rolls from the opponent.

So in terms of social chatter around the presidential debates, where do we stand? What has changed? At the conclusion of the third debate, is the Twitterverse frustrated, fed up, or just gone quiet? What might social have to show us about the state of the presidential race—and what might happen in November?

Volume Comparison by Debate

The third presidential debate never crested the volume of the first, which we reported rivaled that of the Superbowl, generating 6% more volume while lasting three and half hours less.

Here’s what the debate volume comparison looks like side-by-side:

We’ve noted four peaks in conversation in this graph:

  • 1.) “I have the greatest temperament.” — Donald Trump, 143,000 Tweets
  • 2.) “He’s asking everybody to vote for somebody he can’t defend.” — Tim Kaine, 41,000 Tweets
  • 3.) Trump’s stated explicit disagreement with his running mate — 126,000 Tweets
  • 4.) “Nobody has more respect for women than me.” — Donald Trump, 105,000 Tweets

Overall, it’s worth noting that while the third presidential debate saw considerably more volume than the VP debate, #debatefatigue is real — more people Tweeted about the first and second debates than they did the third. In a smart marketing move, Excedrin promoted the hashtag #debateheadache, using national exhaustion over the debates to their advantage:

Top Topics by Debate

Each debate had moments of striking rhetoric—the kind that might make you gasp at your TV or smartphone, take another sip (or gulp) of wine, or get your thumbs moving and tweet your disdain or approval. During Wednesday's debate, the top topic was women’s health; a marked shift from the first two presidential debates, where the most social chatter happened around debate moments that had very little to do with candidates’ stances on issues. In the first debate, Trump came under fire for not releasing his tax returns, while in the second, it was the scandal around his 2005 Access Hollywood comments that garnered attention on social. By contrast, Wallace started in on the topic of abortion and women’s health early in the night on Wednesday, leading the Twitterverse back around to the issues (it’s also worth noting that the VP debate centered more around issues as well).

But by the time the news settled yesterday morning, something else was worth noting—toward the very end of the debate, Trump made two remarkable comments, both of which rode after-the-fact social waves: First, he hinted that he may not accept his loss to Clinton, should it happen: ““I will look at it at the time,” he said when asked if he’d accept the election results. “What I’ve seen is so bad.”

Second, he wagged his finger and called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman.” The response was big, and not just limited to social—indeed, Spotify reported that streams of Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” skyrocketed by 250% after the comment. Using Intelligence, we found that the term peaked between 9:35 and 9:40, and saw a whopping 626K tweets in the day following the insult.


And finally, let’s not forget sentiment. Here, what’s perhaps most striking are the similarities between the three debates: All three started with a spike of hope—maybe this time we’d focus on the issues, maybe this time our candidate would deliver the perfect verbal roundhouse punch—and each time, we settled into negativity. Perhaps that final tick upward in the the third debate trendline is due to the audience’s collective knowledge that we’re done with the debates, and we only have 19 more days in this race.

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Jaime Netzer is Spredfast's Senior Content Marketing Manager, leading content operations. A Lawrence, Kansas native, she traded seasons for breakfast tacos seven years ago and hasn't looked back since. Also a fiction writer and journalist, Jaime tweets semi-regularly and reads constantly.