Who Really Won the First Debate?

Post-Debate Polls and Twitter Reaction Provide a Muddled View

Michael Cohen
Published in
6 min readSep 29, 2016


Now that we have a bit of distance from the first Clinton-Trump debate what really happened on Monday night? Based on our review of the conversation on Twitter and polling, Trump won the initial round on Twitter but Clinton earned a minor bump with the public after the debate.

My partner at the PEORIA Project Dr. Michael Cornfield, who initially characterized the debate a draw, was onto something most observers were missing, including myself. Dr. Cornfield argued that that there were “no breakout moments” and the general lack of fact-checking benefitted Trump.

My initial thoughts right after the debate were that Clinton had scored a significant win by sticking to her plan, particularly on difficult subjects, while Trump decided instead to let it rip, even days later. Due to the historic viewership I thought she’d get a significant bump in post-debate polls.

What actually happened was something between what Dr. Cornfield and I predicted. Neither of us thought that one candidate would dominate the post-debate conversation on Twitter with a specific hashtag. Once again, the 2016 race for the presidency has kept us on our toes.

Post-Debate Polling

National polling following Monday’s debate shows that Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by a signifiant margin. The CNN/ORC poll completed immediately following the debate with viewers pegged it 62% to 27% with 6% saying it was a tie and 4% saying neither won. The poll is compromised by the ideological split, which is skewed left: 41% identified as Democrats, 33% as Independents and 26% as Republicans.

A NBC News/Survey Monkey poll of those who watched or followed the debate that night and Tuesday also had it at a 2:1 margin but six times as many respondents more felt neither had won. To be sure, some of this is question/response wording but we can infer that perhaps more people are less sure of who won after the initial reaction.

More broadly, the top polling aggregation websites found that the race has inched more Clinton’s way over the past three days. On Monday, RealClearPolitics had Clinton up by only 1.6% in the four-way race, a lead which held into the following day.

The spread doubled on the second day to 2.3% and today it registers at 2.9%. Huffington Post had Clinton ahead by 3.2% on Monday, 3.3% on Tuesday and 3.3% on Wednesday — essentially no change.

In summary, while far more viewers thought Clinton won the debate, the trajectory of the race hasn’t moved significantly.

As an aside, the RCP and HuffPo averages also show Gary Johnson’s support eroding after having a shot at landing a spot on the debate stage. RCP has Johnson falling to 7.2% today, from his best polling average of 9.2% on September 14. HuffPo has him at 8.1% as of yesterday, down from 9.1% on September 8. Despite my advocacy last week, it’s now safe to say, Johnson will not be in the next debate. Too many brain freeze moments.

Twitter Reaction to the Debate

Our PEORIA Project partners at ICG Solutions also scored it a win for Clinton in real-time on Twitter. They “detected lower negatives and higher positives for Clinton throughout the debate, with the trends widening over the course of the evening.” Tweet volumes were about equal between Clinton and Trump, which was significant because Trump had dominated the field during the nomination period.

The top trending hashtag after the debate and into Tuesday morning was #TrumpWon, which not only ran counter to most of the media reaction but also many of Trump’s own aides and allies. On Twitter, #TrumpWon became a battleground for pro-Trump and pro-Clinton tweeters.

As we’ve written previously, the hashtag is a great snapshot of a moment in time that dissipates, sometimes rather quickly. Here is what it has looked like over the past three days based on Crimson Hexagon’s tracking.

#TrumpWon and “Trump Won” — Crimson Hexagon

Some of the Twitter analytics we’ve been tracking point to a mixed bag. Clinton gained 204,897 followers since Monday and Trump gained 136,319 followers, a significant difference in account growth pointing to growing enthusiasm for Clinton vs. Trump post-debate, providing additional context beyond individual polls or polling averages.

However, in the moment, Trump won. Looking at potential impressions on sent posts from @realDonaldTrump over the past year, the account had his strongest day on the night of the debate, earning over 2.5 billion impressions on Monday. This metric is calculated by adding the sender’s followers and the followers of all users who have retweeted the post.

@realDonaldTrump — Crimson Hexagon

Despite winning the debate, it was not the biggest day of the year for Hillary Clinton’s official Twitter account. @HillaryClinton had 993,886,579 impressions on sent posts Monday night or less than half of what @realDonaldTrump earned that night.

Clinton’s better days, in terms of this metric, were during the Democratic National Convention. On July 27 @HillaryClinton had 1,194,034,103 potential impressions from sent posts and 1,015,162,931 on July 28, the night she accepted the nomination.

Tracking the Top Hashtags

Finally, let’s take a moment to see what popped the day of the debate on our #Top9 Political Hashtags of 2016. As we recounted in the post #MAGA and it’s long form and its derivatives have overwhelmed all other political hashtags this year.

However, on September 26, #ImWithHer and it’s spelled-out version was used more often than Make America Great Again and its cousins. Nothing else came close. Here’s our list in order and the number of related posts on Monday.

  1. Make America Great Again — 182,719 posts
  2. Black Lives Matter — 86,407 posts
  3. Feel the Bern — 5,782
  4. I’m With Her — 212,858 posts
  5. Never Trump — 36,436 posts
  6. Crooked Hillary — 65,728 posts
  7. Basket of Deplorables — 6,575 posts
  8. Delete Your Account — 5,501 posts
  9. Lock Her Up — 4,786 posts

Others: While #TrumpWon September 26 political twitter with 332,600 posts, derisive Trump comments about Alicia Machado and her post-Miss Universe weight gain generated a lot of media interest and conversation.

We took a look and combining her name as a hashtag, her Twitter username, and her name spelled out were on 145,841 posts over the past few days. That’s significant, and there was a peak on the 27th with 66,031 posts, but it’s dropped off substantially since Monday.

Volume of Alicia Machado, #AliciaMachado, and @machadooficial

Next: The Veeps

As we continue along this slog of a campaign, in five days the vice-presidential candidates who are viewed less negatively than their would-be bosses are, will debate. Unlike our POTUS candidates, the VPOTUS candidates don’t have available RCP or HuffPo polling aggregates on favorability so here is a recent poll from Morning Consult to illustrate:

Clinton 57% unfavorable
Kaine 27% unfavorable

Trump 57% unfavorable
Pence 29% unfavorable

In our next piece, we’ll have a great deal more polling to share on the vice presidential candidates and we will add a deep dive into how Kaine and Pence have been performing on Twitter. But going into their only debate neither candidate seems poised to move the race strongly in either direction.

If you enjoyed this article, click the💚 below so other people will see this here on Medium. Follow me on Twitter @michaelcohen. You can follow our research on our website or on Twitter @PEORIAProject, which is funded by a generous grant from Mark R. Shenkman. To learn more about the Graduate School of Political Management visit our website or follow us on Twitter @GSPMgwu.



Michael Cohen

Founder of Cohen Research Group. Publisher of Congress in Your Pocket. Lecturer at Johns Hopkins. Author of Modern Political Campaigns