The Presidential Debate and Student Support for Clinton and Trump

Photo credit: AP Photo / Evan Vucci

The Department of Government at the University of West Florida hosted a viewing of the first U.S. presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on September 26, 2016, followed by a brief discussion among the attendees. Given the last minute organization of the event, the invitation was limited to students majoring in political science.

During the event, I distributed an informal survey among the students to assess how much Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump gained or lost support after viewing the debate. Twenty students completed the survey. The students’ ages ranged from 44 to 18, with average student about 23 years old. About 71% of the student were white, and about 57% were male. The education level ranged from freshman-undergraduate to graduate student, with seniors as the mode at about 38%.

One a scale of 0 to 10, the mean average student’s level of interest in U.S. politics was 8.5, and the mean average student’s level of knowledge in the same was 7.1. Using the same 0-10 scale, I asked the students to report their level of support for Clinton and Trump, both before and after the debate. I then created a variable indicating a change in support by subtracting the difference between support before and after the debate viewing (so the potential change in support ranged from +10 to –10).

Table: Average changes in levels of student support for Trump and Clinton following the first presidential debate

Mean Ave. Change Mean Ave. Change (Democrats) Mean Ave. Change (Republicans) Mean Ave. Change (other)
Hillary Clinton .75 .8 .1 2
Donald Trump .135 0 .57 – .6
N 20 5 10 5


Grouping all students together, both candidates enjoyed an increase (albeit a small one) in their level of support after the debate (the average change in support for Clinton was .75, and that for Trump was .135). This suggests that the debate didn’t have a big impact on students’ candidate preferences overall.

For the five Democratic Party students, the debate had no effect on their level of support for Trump, although it did increase their support for Clinton by .8 on average. Among Republican students, the debate slightly increased their level of support for Clinton (suggesting she had a good night), but increased their support for Trump more. Among the five independent students, Clinton gained two full points, while Trump lost support.

Of course, given the small sample size, there is potential for large random error which should be considered while making inference. Keeping this in mind, and to the extent that this sample is representative, we can say that Clinton won the debate among students, especially those who didn’t identify with either major party (the group Clinton will benefit most from winning over).