Who Won the January 17 Democratic Debate on Social Media? For Hillary and Bernie, the Race is Closer Than Ever

On January 17, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton faced off in the nationally televised Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate in Charleston, South Carolina. After the debate, pundits struggled to pick a winner in a race that might be getting close. As reported by The New York Times, viewers leaned towards Sanders while third candidate Martin O’Malley “was most notable for his unsuccessful efforts to get a word in.”

National polls conducted by phone indicated that the debate pushed Bernie Sanders closer to the nomination. On social media, have Sanders’ and Clintons’ trajectories also changed?

There might be a correlation between the engagement of social media followers and a candidate’s performance in the polls. Can Bernie and Hillary’s followers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram help predict who will win the nomination?


Points vs. Followers Before the Debate

Between December 19 and January 19, national polls have shifted drastically in favour of Bernie Sanders.

As of December 19, according to a Monmouth University poll of Democrats conducted nationwide, Hillary Clinton had 59 points. She also had 7,552,887 total followers across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Sanders had 26 points, and 3,754,109 social media followers on the three platforms.

It’s not a perfect comparison: the poll allowed respondents to choose between all democratic candidates while the share of followers only includes Sanders and Clinton. Still, their share of followers and their share of respondents are similar.

Before the debate, Hillary Clinton had more than double Sanders’ social media following and double the points in the poll.


Hillary had the largest lead on Twitter, by more than 3 million followers. Bernie was ahead on Facebook by more than 100,000 likes. Hillary had much larger followings, but were her followers more engaged?

Engagement and Strategy

How did the candidates change their social strategies before and after the debate? Bernie Sanders’ more direct offensive strategy on social media may have contributed to his 11 point gain.

Both candidates use social media to share live updates from the campaign trail as well as their stances on each major issue.

The similarities in strategy are almost uncanny on Instagram. Clinton and Sanders both posted exactly 33 times on Instagram during the same period: 31 photos and 2 videos each. They also have similar engagement rates. Before the debate, Sanders had an average engagement rate of 6%  on Instagram. His 579,464 Instagram followers liked or commented on each post, on average, 35,876.7 times. Clinton has a 3% engagement rate, with 22,923 engagements per post and a following of 685,101. (There is one small difference on the platform. As shown in Crowdbabble, Hillary never filters her photos, while Bernie rotates through 12; aside from normal, Clarendon, used 4 times, is his favourite).

The candidates’ strategies diverge on Facebook and Twitter.

Clinton’s most engaging tweets are aimed at the GOP and rarely name specific candidates. Her top three tweets from December 19 to January 16, before the debate, found using Crowdbabble:


What gets Clinton’s followers going on Twitter? Tweets aimed at the GOP’s stance on hot-button issues, like immigration. Clinton’s most engaging tweet before the debate, below:


Sanders’ campaign employs a different offensive strategy. His most popular posts on his most engaging platform are attacks on specific politicians rather than their stances on the issues. Below, his top three Facebook posts from December 19 until the debate:


Below, Sanders’ most popular Facebook post, shared on January 13:


Sanders’s followers are most likely to engage when he attacks Clinton. Clinton’s followers are most likely to engage when she attacks the GOP. This could be due to the fact that Sanders is perceived to have some crossover appeal; the GOP might be less reviled among his followers.

Overall, Clinton’s followers were more engaged than Sanders’ on Facebook, and less engaged on Instagram.


In terms of the fervor of their social media followers, Clinton and Sanders were almost tied. But Clinton’s much larger followings means she was getting many more likes, comments, and shares with similar engagement rates.

Points vs. Followers After the Debate

Many outlets declared Bernie Sanders the winner of the Charleston showdown. Did the debate lead to a sudden spike for Sanders in terms of followers or engagement?

In a poll on January 19, two days after the debate, Monmouth University found that Bernie had pulled ahead by 11 points. The increase was not matched by an proportional increase in followers on social media.


Despite a 7-point drop in the polls after the debate, Clinton held onto her 66% share of the total social media followers between them. Clinton is still millions ahead, but she no longer has double Sanders’ following. As of January 22, Clinton has 8,111,211 followers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to Sanders’ 4,157,246.

The correlation between the national polls and engagement rate is much stronger.

Twitter Surge for Sanders

On Facebook, the debate in South Carolina gave Sanders a big boost. His most engaging Facebook post in a month was a shot at Clinton on January 17 with 158,295 likes, comments, and shares, beating his previous record of 90,633. The Crowdbabble visualization below shows Sanders’ Facebook engagement before and after the debate:

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Bernie Sanders’ spike in Facebook engagement, more than his overall share of followers, reflects his apparent victory in the debate and his post-debate jump in the polls. Hillary Clinton, in contrast, had higher engagement before the debate:

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Engagement per post is up overall for Clinton on Facebook, but she didn’t benefit from a viral post like Sanders did after the South Carolina debate.

Were Sanders’ gains reflected in his overall engagement rate? Below, average engagement rates across the three platforms after the debate:


Engagement soared for both candidates on Twitter and Instagram, and plummeted by more than 80% on Facebook. The debate invigorated Bernie’s followers, particularly on Twitter. Hillary lost her lead in engagement rate on Facebook and is no longer tied with him on Twitter.

Bernie’s team is working much harder on Twitter, with 132 tweets from January 17 to 22 that captured a total of 558,465 favourites, comments, and retweets. Hillary’s team, on the other hand, only tweeted 84 times over the same period, attracting 227,598 engagements.

Followers Fired Up

Social media users clearly sided with Bernie Sanders after the debate, helping him close the gap in engagement and followers between himself and Hillary. The South Carolina debate appears to have stirred Bernie Sanders’ followers to action, acting as a catalyst for a surge in engagement across platforms. Though his overall follower share does not reflect his performance in the debate or leap in the polls, it’s clear that his followers and fans have come alive.

Despite her larger following, Hillary is now the underdog on social media: her followers are less likely to engage with her content on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Bernie’s followers are fired up. Could his active social media fanbases help him win the Democratic nomination? Or will Hillary’s much larger following leap into action just in time?