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College-Aged Survey Participants Indicate Last Night’s Presidential Debate Changed Minds and Influenced Their Support

MU political communication experts share results from multi-campus presidential debate-viewing parties

September 27th, 2016

Story Contact: Jeff Sossamon, 573-882-3346,

COLUMBIA, MO – Results of a debate-viewing study among college students reveal that Hillary Clinton outperformed Donald Trump in their first presidential debate. The study, which was coordinated by the University of Missouri’s Political Communication Institute (PCI), included a survey of 400 college students from around the country before and after the debate. Results of the survey indicate a more than 10 percent increase in the likelihood that those students surveyed will vote for Clinton.

“The results of our study indicate Trump was unable to use the first debate to convince undecided young voters to support him while Clinton improved her overall support from potential voters,” said Mitchell McKinney, professor of communication and director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri. “It’s clear from this sample of college students that the undecided voters moved toward Clinton after the debate while Trump was unable to attract any additional support.”

Among participants in the multi-campus study:

  • Hillary Clinton’s performance in the first debate increased students’ likelihood of voting for her from 43 percent before the debate to 54 percent following it;
  • Donald Trump’s support, however, remained relatively the same decreasing one percentage point from 28 to 27 after the debate;
  • Before the debate 29 percent of students surveyed were undecided; afterward, only 19 percent remained undecided;
  • Among participants in this study, 46 percent self-identified as Democrats, 38 percent as Republicans, and 16 percent as Independents. Sixty-two percent were female and 38 percent were male.

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Debate viewers’ overall evaluations of Hillary Clinton rose, while evaluations of Donald Trump decreased slightly following the debate. Using a “feeling thermometer” scale from 0-100, evaluations of Clinton rose from 38 percent before the debate to 48 percent afterward, while evaluations of Trump declined from 28 percent before the debate to 27 afterward.

“It’s striking how low evaluations were for both candidates going into the debate,” said Benjamin Warner, assistant professor of communication at the University of Missouri. “The changes in candidate evaluations drew a contrast to previous debate-viewing studies we have conducted. In the four previous cycles from 2000 to 2012, the average candidate increase during the first debate was only one point. Clinton’s 10-point swing is the largest increase of any candidate we’ve seen in our presidential debate research.”

Also, in the four previous election cycles, changes in candidate evaluations after the first debate ranged from zero to five points, with the highest changes being a 5-point increase for John Kerry in 2004 and a 5½ point increase for Mitt Romney in 2012, McKinney said.

College students from several campuses throughout the nation participated in the study, including students from Indiana University, Emerson College in Boston, Marquette University, Missouri State University, Rhodes College in Tennessee, Cameron University in Oklahoma, and the University of Wyoming.

“Our research of college students’ reactions to the debates could not be conducted without the cooperation of our colleagues across the country,” McKinney said.

The PCI-led research consortium plans to conduct similar debate-viewing studies of college students for the two remaining presidential debates and the vice presidential debate.

Editors’ Note: Inquiries about the study can be emailed to

The previous research cited here is available on the PCI website ( in the 2013 article by McKinney and Warner, “Do presidential debates matter? Examining a decade of campaign debate effects:”