Social Media Plays Instrumental Role in the First Presidential Debate

kasey-chen-1BY KASEY CHEN
Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong

The first presidential debate took place on Monday, September 26, and reactions were decidedly mixed.  Viewership was higher than ever before, with 80.9 million Americans tuning in, the highest numbers since the 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. This year more than ever, Americans chose to make their opinions heard via social media outlets including Twitter and Facebook. 17.1 million debate-related twitter interactions from 2.7 million different people was the final count this year, blowing the 2012 number of 10.3 million out of the water.

Candidate Donald Trump garnered more attention on the social media, with 62% of all debate-based Facebook and Twitter conversations centering on him, leaving rival Hillary Clinton with 38%. This is not to say Trump was put in the lead, since the nature of the reactions were generally not in his favor, with most commentators naming Clinton as the winner of the debate. Trump was the most Google-searched candidate prior to the debate, but afterwards Clinton had surpassed him in all 50 states.

The viewers were not the only ones utilizing social media surrounding the debate. Candidates tapped into the fact that more of the public receives their news from social media than ever, with 44% of U.S. adults claiming to have learned about the presidential election from social media in January 2016. In July 24% said they had looked to Trump and Clinton’s social media posts for information about the election. Mimicking the debate statistics, Donald Trump’s tweets receive the most attention, nearly doubling the average number of Clinton’s retweets, despite Clinton posting equally as much.

The heated contention over this election cycle’s candidates may possibly drive up voter turn out. Voter registration has risen since 2012, and could possibly beat the record numbers of 2008. Similar to that election, the youth vote will play a vital role in determining the next president. Nearly 13 million 18-24 year old viewers were recorded watching the debate on traditional news networks. Their numbers cannot stack up to the 35-54 and 55+ sectors which traditionally dominate debate viewership and came in with over 65 million viewers collectively, but youth participation is up in general. Even though numbers fell from their 2008 peak in 2012, the number of youth voters in the last election was still higher than that of 2000.

Rock the Vote, the non-profit aimed at bolstering the youth vote since the 1990’s has continued in its effort this election. New this cycle, they hired Luis Calderin who worked under youth-favorite Senator Bernie Sanders during his campaign as the Director of Arts, Culture, and Youth Vote to the position of Vice President of Marketing and Creative. Caldrin told ad-week, “Our goal is to register as many young people to vote as we possibly can. Every day, 20,000 kids turn 18, and we’re trying to engage them wherever they are. We work with everyone from large brands to smaller advocacy groups.”

Their partnerships are indeed varied, working with groups ranging from the All in Campus democracy challenge, an organization aimed at encouraging students to vote using Rock the Vote’s online registration tool to the dating app tinder, where users were asked to swipe right or left on issues and ultimately receive a match with their ideal candidate. Of those who participated, 37.8% matched with Senator Sanders, 37.6% with Clinton, 14.3% with Cruz, and 8.1% for Donald Trump. Efforts such as these may have a major impact on the number of youth voters who register and ultimately show up on Election Day.

NBC Nightly News correspondent, Lester Holt, moderated the first debate, held at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York on Long Island. Holt opted to carve the debate down from what was initially supposed to include 6 sections down to 3. Those sections were entitled “America’s Direction”, “Achieving prosperity”, and “Securing America.” Candidates were asked to give their thoughts on each matter in two minutes after the question was asked.

The next presidential debate is set to run in a “town-hall” fashion where voters ask questions of the candidates directly. This style is the least scripted of all of the debates, which poses advantages and problems for each of the candidates.  At this point, Clinton has a three to five point lead in the polls, but Trump still has a chance to close this gap. The debate is set to air on Sunday, October 9.


“WATCH LIVE: The Second 2016 Presidential Debate.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 02 Oct. 2016.

“Press Release.” Rock the Vote Announces New Leadership for 2016 General Election Campaign to Engage and Mobilize Millennials. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Oct. 2016.

Rogers, James. “Clinton Won Google Searches, Trump Dominated Twitter During First Presidential Debate.” Fox News. FOX News Network, 27 Sept. 2016. Web. 02 Oct. 2016.

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