Major moments from the third and final presidential debate

This election has garnered an unprecedented amount of attention: a record 84 million viewers tuned in for the first presidential debate, and though viewership declined for the second debate (as is the norm), it was the most tweeted debated ever, with over 17 million debate-related tweets.

Tonight marked the third and final debate of the 2016 election — it was expected to be the most-watched third presidential debate of any election season, with an estimated 66.9 million viewers tuning in. During the debate, we saw steady traffic increases in new media as well as dramatic and short-lived spikes on traditional media sites.

new media traffic presidential debates

While traffic to media sites increased during the third debate, major moments of engagement (spikes) decreased by 83% as compared to the first debate. New media traffic increased by 33% after the third debate started, and steadily increased by 43% throughout. By the end of the debate, traffic was 67% higher than the week prior to the debate.

Here are some of the traffic patterns we saw throughout the first, second, and third debates.

Top moments from the third debate

Spikes during the third debate were less dramatic than spikes during the first debate. Traffic to new media increased gradually but significantly during the debate, while traditional media (such as cable networks and newspapers) showed dramatic and short-lived spikes at key moments.

third debate date-03

The top tweeted moments included Trump and Clinton’s discussion of the treatment of women, Trump’s refusal to state whether he’ll accept election results, and the conversation about Russia and nuclear weapons.

Here are some of the major moments from the third debate:

  • 9:38 PM EDT: a 500% spike when Trump claimed that Clinton “wanted the wall.”

  • 10:12 PM EDT: a steady, 350% increase while Clinton discussed her foreign policy

  • 10:35 PM EDT: a 670% increase as compared to normal as viewers checked out media sites post debate

Debates 1 and 2: keeping an eye on fact checkers

Media sites saw a flurry of engagement online during the first presidential debate of 2016: sites with fact checkers saw spikes of 3,000% with an average traffic increase of 63%.

third debate date-02

With that in mind, we kept an eye on media sites with fact checkers during the second presidential debate. Here’s a timeline of what we saw:

  • 9:08 PM EDT: a 250% spike when Clinton answered the very first question about education funding and reform

  • 9:27 PM EDT: a 100% spike when Trump said he would get a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton  

  • 10:07 PM EDT: a 256% spike when Trump discussed Clinton's tax reform efforts in the Senate, saying he understood the tax code better than anyone  

  • 10:48 PM EDT: a 500% spike as viewers flocked to media sites after the debate ended

third debate date-01

In contrast to the first debate, we didn’t see large spikes with new media — traffic remained high, so we suspect engagement was steady throughout the debate.

Thank you to our customers who collaborated with us during the debates, and keep an eye on our blog — we’ll continue to recap election data through November 8.


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Tyler McMullen is CTO at Fastly, where he’s responsible for the system architecture and leads the company’s technology vision. As part of the founding team, Tyler built the first versions of Fastly’s Instant Purging system, API, and Real-time Analytics. A self-described technology curmudgeon, he has experience in everything from web design to kernel development, and loathes all of it. Especially distributed systems.

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