But throughout the night and well into Tuesday morning, people on Twitter shared dozens of debate polls that seemingly concluded that Trump had won the debate. CNN must have been biased against Trump. Pundits were elitists. The media conspiracy against Trump, in their minds, had never been more clear.
The science for their case, however, was far murkier.
Take a look for example, at the polls shared by conservative news aggregation site, The Drudge Report. At the top of their list was a seemingly scientific post-debate poll claiming to come from ABC News. According to ABC News, Drudge claimed, 54% of respondents would now be voting for Trump, followed by 21% for Jill Stein, 15% for Gary Johnson, and just 10% for Hillary Clinton, despite the fact that Stein and Johnson didn’t even compete in the debate.
Deplorable Debbi (@horsemodels) September 27, 2016
The poll, which Drudge linked to and which was shared by some #TrumpWon supporters on Twitter, actually came from a fake ABC News site with the address “abcnewsgo.co,” not the outlet’s real site, “abcnews.go.com.”
Other polls weren’t so conclusive. Slate, Time, Breitbart, and CNBC online polls all gave the debate to Trump. Even though Slate and Time warned their readers that their site’s polls were mostly fun and unscientific (“Online reader polls like this one are not statistically representative of likely voters, and are not predictive of the debate outcome will effect the election,” Time wrote), the numbers and the subsequent viral screenshots sharply contrasted with the dominant (“mainstream”) narrative that Hillary had won.
Brenden Gutierrez (@BR3NDO702) September 27, 2016
Outside of the elitist circle of media & establishment hacks, it’s unanimous: #TrumpWon
Donald Trump Jr. (@DenaldJTrumpJr) September 27, 2016
But online polls can be easily manipulated, and it appears that 4chan /pol/, home to many on the alt-right, may have been involved. Earlier this morning, an anonymous user encouraged fellow members to vote for Trump on various post-debate polls. A screenshot of the board subsequently began to go viral on Twitter and yet another hypothesis or conspiracy theory, depending on your politics was born.
If you’re wondering why all the online polls have Trump as debate winner… pic.twitter.com/743uQLNBHl
Maxime Lebled (@MaxOfS2D) September 27, 2016
Even if 4chan wasn’t able to influence the post-debate polls, however, online polls like the ones shared above are generally regarded to be unscientific. It’s not possible to immediately determine whether the voters participating in the poll are at all representative of the general population. Voters can vote more than once using different browsers. Though they can assess online voter enthusiasm (a potential serious obstacle for the Clinton campaign), they can’t provide conclusive results.
Mass voter fraud may be a myth but online polls are far harder to monitor.
The CNN post-debate poll, on the other hand, claimed that 62% of voters claimed that Clinton won, compared to just 27% for Trump. As Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight pointed out, that’s the third widest margin in a CNN or Gallup post-debate taken since 1984. Their poll, compared to web polls simply used for audience engagement, is generally regarded to be more scientific.
The poll itself isn’t without flaws in design. The voters in the CNN poll leaned Democratic by a margin of approximately 15%. Still, as CNN pointed out, 54% of independent voters in their poll gave Clinton the debate, and just 33% awarded it to Trump.
CNN conducts its poll with voters over the telephone (landline and cell) and estimates their margin for sampling error at 4.5 plus or minus percentage points.
Even with the data at hand, screenshots sometimes matter more than science in the eyes of certain voters. Throughout the morning, #TrumpWon continued to trend on Twitter and while some of those tweets were sarcastic, others were real.
There are dozens of polls out there that tell voters want they want to hear. Far fewer give them the data they need to know.