Three Key Takeaways from the Social Conversation Around the First Presidential Debate

Racepoint Global

Last night, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump took the stage for the most anticipated moment of the 2016 campaign—the first presidential debate. Pundits have declared a clear victory for Clinton, who needed a solid performance to stem worries about her narrowing lead in recent polls.

The jury is still out on the debate’s lasting impact, but we’re analyzing the campaigns’ use of social media and the online conversation surrounding the first face-off. At Racepoint Global, we create wraparound communications strategies that use social media to our clients’ maximum advantage—so we’re keen on observing the ways political campaigns are employing social to advance their goals, too.

While the pundits were declaring winners and losers, we identified some key social media takeaways from Monday night that may continue to shape the final month of the race:

1. Stepped up scrutiny of Donald Trump is here to stay

In the lead-up to last night’s debate, the buzz in Washington about whether Lester Holt would “fact-check” the candidates in real time was as big as the speculation about which candidate would take home the victory. After Matt Lauer’s widely-panned performance at CNN’s forum earlier this month, the Clinton campaign and its surrogates ‘worked the refs’ to pressure Holt to challenge Trump’s go-to claims on the campaign trail.




For all the effort, the Clinton camp was rewarded with tougher follow-up questioning for Trump. But the larger conversation about the media’s responsibility to “fact-check” candidates—particularly in this strange campaign season—has ignited debate among pundits, candidates, and reporters themselves. The media has gotten tougher on Trump in recent weeks—look for that trend to continue through the upcoming debates, as editors and reporters look for a course correction in response to withering criticism that efforts to be “even-handed” have normalized Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric.




2. Preparation pays off

Everyone anticipated that Clinton would be over-prepared for the debate, armed with facts, figures, and planned attacks designed to wrong-foot Trump. She met expectations on that front, and it seems that she’s led her team by example.

The Clinton debate response team was ready to counter Trump’s claims all night, leaning on sharable graphics and Trump’s own words and tweets to undercut his claims about everything from his temperament to his business record to his long history of supporting the “birther” conspiracy theory.




For months, the Clinton camp has been operating @u—an account that exists solely to facilitate rapid response to opposition claims. Their efforts, combined with those of journalists like Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski and the Washington Post’s David Farenthold, to painstakingly catalog Trump’s tens of thousands of tweets, years of interviews and public statements, and his company’s history have made real-time fact checking quick and easy—for reporters and supporters alike.

In fact, the most-retweeted tweet during the debate was a perfect example of the live fact-check effort at work. After Clinton attacked Trump’s views on global warming, he denied having said that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by China to steal American manufacturing. Instantly, a 2012 tweet from Trump saying exactly that was recirculating, proving him wrong in his own words.




3. Trending – not always a good thing

From the beginning, the subtext of the Trump campaign has been “all press is good press,” but last night we saw that the axiom may not apply to traditional and social media in the same way.




Trump dominated share of conversation on Twitter, but the focus was on his most disputed claims and controversial assertions.  Twitter traffic spiked most around the moments that were widely seen as stumbles for Trump: his comments on his own “good temperament” and his endorsement of controversial “stop-and-frisk” tactics.




Out of the top ten rising Google searches for Clinton since the start of the debate, seven referred to the Clinton campaign website’s live fact-checking page—which Clinton mentioned multiple times onstage. By comparison, Trump’s sniffles, record on the Iraq War, and comments on former Miss Universe Alicia Machado cracked his top ten rising Google search terms.




With two more presidential debates and one vice presidential debate to go—and 41 days to Election Day—there’s plenty of time for the momentum to shift. It’s too soon to tell if Clinton’s win in debate number one will move the needle, but we’ll be watching to see how the campaigns continue to leverage their social media channels and followings as we enter the home stretch.