How do the Debates Impact Social Media Support for the Candidates? Surprising Outcomes from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s First Face-Off

By Katie Meyer

The first official debate of the 2016 Presidential Election changed the trajectories of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on social media — but not in the way that you might expect. Donald Trump is an unprecedented candidate, and his social media supporters respond to perceived losses in unpredictable ways.

Did the first debate help Hillary catch up, or push Trump further ahead?

To determine how the debates affect the opinions of American voters, social media seems like a good place to start.

Before the First Debate

For months, Donald Trump has dominated social media. On September 25, 2016, the day before the first debate, Donald Trump had 25,019,991 followers and fans across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Hillary Clinton had 17,312,765.

Trump’s social media gaffes seemed to only fuel his surge in social supporters before the first debate. Like a human Rebel Flag, attacks from “liberals” on his social media posts make him more appealing to his conservative base.

Despite drawing the ire of many on social media for his comments about the tragic shooting of Dwyane Wade’s cousin in Chicago, his engagement with younger social audiences — Instagram, for example — has been higher than Hillary’s. Before the first debate, Trump boasted an engagement rate of 60% to Hillary’s 10.2% on Instagram.

There were only a few small signs that Hillary might triumph on social media after the debate. For the first time since he officially took the nomination, before the debate Trump’s engagement numbers had been sliding on Twitter. Trump had a 7.1% engagement rate — down from earlier highs in June and July of more than 200%. Hillary Clinton had a 7.7% engagement rate on Twitter, besting Trump on the platform for the first time in months.

Trump enjoyed the strongest lead on Facebook. From September 22 to 25, his content commanded an engagement rate of 21.8% to Hillary’s 19.5%. The competitive analysis from Crowdbabble below shows his engagement lead on the platform, with Hillary overtaking him only a few times over the summer.

Before the first debate, Trump seemed poised to trounce Hillary on social until election day. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

After

By midnight on September 26, most major news outlets had declared Hillary the winner of the debate. Social media polls showed an inverse response: Trump won most polls on Twitter by margins of tens of thousands of votes. Polling numbers showed that Hillary had only edged ahead slightly, despite her performance.

Social media analytics before and after the debate tell a different story still: the first debate has put Donald Trump on the defensive on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Can the debates move the needle on social media for Hillary Clinton? On the three platforms, Hillary Clinton saw a surge in engagement and followers from September 26 to 29. On Instagram, her engagement rate rose from 10% to 75%. On Twitter, her engagement rate leapt to 32.6%; Donald Trump’s only rose to 20.1%. Hillary’s total engagements — likes, retweets, mentions, and replies — on Twitter skyrocketed to 3,001,951 for September 26 to 29, eclipsing those of Trump for the first time in six months.

The engagement rate graphs below show Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s performance on Twitter before and after the first debate.

As a result of the uptick in likes and retweets, Hillary’s following on Twitter also increased. She gained 79,180 followers on the platform from September 26 to 29, while Trump only gained 64,384. The debate also turned the tide for Hillary on Facebook, the platform where Trump had the most secure lead. On Facebook, Hillary is catching up. And her fans are engaging more.

As shown in the Crowdbabble competitive report above, the tide is turning for Hillary Clinton on Facebook. Hillary’s engagement rate has increased from 19.5% before the debate to 62.7% after. Her total likes, comments, and shares more than tripled, from 1.2m from September 22 to 25, to 4.1m from September 26 to 29. Donald Trump now lags behind on the network; the debate only boosted his engagement rate on Facebook to just 31%.

The Crowdbabble graph above shows Hillary and Trump’s total reactions, comments, and shares on Facebook before and after the debate. In both percentage and total engagements, the first debate pushed Hillary ahead.

There is one area where Hillary has not seen massive growth: total fans and followers. Trump’s audience on social media was still larger after the debate.

While Hillary and Bernie battled through the spring for the Democratic nomination, Trump consolidated support from his party and raced ahead on social media. Trump still has significantly more Facebook fans than Hillary.

Trump’s broad base on social media calls into question Hillary’s to surpass him by November 9. Hillary’s performance in the first debate on September 26 fired up her followers, but was it enough to put her on a trajectory to win?

Going Forward

The outcomes of Hillary Clinton’s wins and Donald Trump’s losses are often surprising, and the effects on social media are hard to predict.

If Hillary Clinton was declared the clear winner of the first debate, shouldn’t her number of supporters have increased? Shouldn’t the social media buzz around her performance have translated into higher social followings?

There are no social media consequences for Trump’s perceived failures and scandals, no dents in his huge follower lead, no fan and follower deserters.

\His social media supporters seem to view mainstream losses as fringe wins: the more Trump is declared a loser by “the establishment”, the higher his credibility. For Donald Trump’s dedicated social media base, politically incorrect behaviour is not a reason to abandon him: it’s more evidence that Trump is wonderfully dangerous and outside the system. For Trump supporters, dangerous is a compliment.

Though Hillary’s engagement on social media surpassed Trump’s in the wake of the first debate, Trump’s online fanbase is significantly larger. Hillary fired up her social media supporters on September 26, but did not attract many new ones. After the debate on September 29, 2016, Hillary had 17.8 million followers and fans across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Donald Trump had 25 million, seeing lower growth. Though Hillary added more than double the followers and fans that Trump did in the days following the debate, the total audience share gap between them shrunk by just 1.5%.

Donald Trump has been pummelled by leaks since the first debate, but his campaign isn’t sinking on social media. Will the second debate finally put him under? Or will Trump reinvigorate his massive online following, and overtake Hillary again?

Her surge in engagement after the first debate has positioned Hillary to gain fans and followers at faster rate than Trump after the second debate. But given Trump’s huge lead in social media supporters, their enthusiasm might not be enough.


Because the first debate was quickly followed by several critical revelations about Donald Trump, including his tax returns and lewd leaked comments, shorter date ranges were used. For the purposes of this analysis, the before and after statistics are taken from September 22 to 25, and September 26 to 29. All data visualizations and data collected with Crowdbabble.