On Monday night this week, 84 million Americans sat down in front of their television sets to watch Trump vs Clinton. The first of three presidential debates was the most popular to date, beating the Jimmy Carter vs Ronald Reagan debate back in 1980 by almost 4 million viewers.
Among the many viewers was your truly. I live in Europe, which meant I had to get up at three in the night. I also didn’t want to wake up my wife1, so I spent the night sleeping on the couch downstairs. But why do I bother to get up in the middle of the night to watch a political debate on the other side of the world? I don’t even follow domestic politics closely. The main reason was that I was hoping for a mental breakdown by Donald Trump on live TV, so I could tell my grandchildren that, yes, grandpa personally witnessed the Great Trump Meltdown of 2016.
While that never happened, at least we got to see Donald Trump being his rambling self. He occasionally managed to express himself using coherent sentences, but he spent most of his time pointing his index finger in the air, blaming Clinton for ISIS, getting visibly angry, and talking about Sean Hannity.
Clinton, on the other hand, managed to stay calmer, more focused, and even managed to give reasonably constructive answers to moderator Lester Holt’s questions. Holt, by the way, didn’t do an amazing job keeping the two candidates in check. Trump was allowed to interrupt Clinton 51 times without Holt lifting a finger.
And the winner is…
By all counts, Clinton came out on top, and won the first presidential debate. But not by the landslide we would have seen had Trump had that mental breakdown on stage. Also, I’m doubt that she managed to convert many Trump supporters over to her team. Neither did he turn many Republicans to Democrats himself. Yes, he was rambling, but his core audience is used to it. Hell, I suspect that his ramblings are one of the main reasons they flock to him: He doesn’t sounds like a politician.
One interesting observation I did was that Mr. Trump does not work very well without feedback from the audience. In the case of this debate, they had been asked to STFU. Trump, who is used to appearing at political rallies and debates where the audience tends to be very vocal – and on his side – looked very surprised the first time he worked himself up, and there was no response from the audience.
Even though Clinton didn’t tear Trump apart on stage, her performance might have resulted in some long-tail success. According to FiveThirtyEight’s poll-only election forecast, Clinton’s chance of winning the election has increased by roughly 7 percent since the debate on Monday. Not too shabby.
During the 90 minutes long debate, Twitter’s users managed to pump out 17 million tweets. I was following the top tweets on the “official” #debatenight. What I observed was very interesting: At least 90% of the tweets were pro-Clinton or anti-Trump. The reason that is striking, is that the Trump-crowd is very vocal on social media. Why didn’t I see all of their tweets as well?
One reason for the lack of Trump-love in my feed might be that I tend to post tweets that are arguably pro-Democrat. It’s no secret that Twitter scans and analyze their user’s every move on Twitter. That means figuring out that I wouldn’t vote Trump had I been an American citizen isn’t exactly rocket science. By showing me pro-Clinton tweets, I feel more at home and my own views are justified because “most people think like I do, which means I’m correct.”
The other reason why I saw more pro-Clinton than pro-Trump tweets might be, and this is a scarier theory, that Twitter by choice show these tweets to everyone. Doing that, they can influence public opinion. We are sheep, and we tend to follow the herd. The size of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and other social media networks means that whoever controls them has the means to sway a lot of voters.
Debate night was also a busy time for the fact checkers. Clinton pointed out early in the debate that her campaign had a live debate fact checker on their website. That prompted Trump to quickly announce that his website also had a fact checker. That statement that made his staff go “oh, shit”, because there was no fact checker on his website. NPR’s own fact check even made a point of this.
NPR’s fact check is the only one I’ve looked at after the debate. That one tells a story of two candidates that repeatedly get their facts wrong. Trump beats Clinton by a long shot, though, getting much of what he portraits as facts torn to pieces as lies, lies, and more lies. But NPR might be a bit biased towards Clinton. I can’t imagine anyone within a hundred yards of the NPR offices being pro-Trump.
“That makes me smart.” — Donald Trump on not paying federal income tax.
“I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament. I have a winning temperament.” — Donald Trump
Am I going to watch the next two presidential debates? Of course. There’s still a chance we’ll get that Trump mental meltdown. At least there will be more great quotes.