Anyone who missed last night’s presidential debate and turned to social media to try to determine how it went might have a difficult time figuring out whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump came away on top.
Trump supporters and the candidate himself are busy declaring victory and promoting internet polls in which as many as 80 percent of respondents claimed that Trump won. Team Clinton, meanwhile, has also declared victory and is citing multiple analysts in the media who insist that Clinton won, either by virtue of Trump self-destructing or her superior preparation.
But for every Trump supporter tweeting out a Drudge Report poll, there is a Clinton supporter ready to point out that unscientific opt-in surveys are, statistically speaking, a joke. And for every Clintonite waving a copy of the latest New York Times editorial, there is a Trump backer ready to cry out that the mainstream media is irretrievably biased against The Donald.
In short, it can be hard to cut through the clutter and judge how the electorate -- the ultimate arbiter of who actually won -- will react to a debate.
“It is dangerous to offer confident predictions of how the public will react to a debate immediately after it is concluded,” counseled the sages at Sabato’s Crystal Ball and the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “The instant polls you may see (or may have already seen) after the debate declaring one of the candidates the winner may or may not be meaningful, and in order to fully assess the impact we’re probably going have to wait until the end of the week, when new national and state polls will assess how the two candidates’ performances changed the race. It’s no fun to urge patience — but we think that’s better than making sweeping pronouncements in the aftermath of a widely-watched national event that voters may interpret quite differently than experts may expect.”
However, there is one source of information about debate reaction that is largely untainted by partisan passion, efforts at journalistic detachment or simply the desire to sound correct: the betting and financial markets.
There are multiple online platforms where bettors risk their own money by betting on who they believe will win the election. There are also indicators in the financial markets that can be reasonably tied to sentiment about the direction of the presidential race.
And on Tuesday morning, those markets were unanimous: Clinton was the winner, though perhaps not an overwhelming one.
The betting market PredictIt on Tuesday morning showed virtually all shares predicting a Clinton victory trending upwards -- meaning that bettors thought the chances of her winning the White House had improved. Shares predicting a Trump victory, by comparison, lost value overnight. Similarly, the betting site Hypermind showed Clinton’s likelihood of victory rising and Trump’s falling.
The well-regarded Predictwise site, which synthesizes data from multiple betting markets and more, registered one of the more dramatic shifts. Before the debate last night, it had Clinton with a 69 percent to 31 percent advantage is the race to win the White House. (That is measuring probability of an Electoral College victory, not the popular vote.) By Tuesday morning the divide had widened to 74-26 in Clinton’s favor.
To be clear, who people think is going to win doesn’t always reflect who they personally plan to vote for. Just ask Gary Johnson and Jill Stein supporters. But where they are willing to put their money is arguably a better indicator of how they feel the candidates are doing relative to each other.
There are other markets worth looking at as well. Support him or not, there is no denying that Trump’s unpredictability has made financial markets nervous. And when investors get nervous about the future, one thing that reliably happens is that the prices of gold and silver tend to rise as they seek “safe” assets.
The Mexican peso is also, arguably, a useful indicator of where investors think the election is going. Trump’s well-known anger at what he sees as abuse of the U.S. by its trading partner south of the border, as well as his repeated threats to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement and his promise to build a giant wall along the U.S. southern border have made the peso more sensitive than usual to U.S. political developments.
After the debate ended last night, currency traders started buying up pesos, increasing the Mexican currency’s value against the U.S. dollar -- again, an indication that suggests they see a Trump presidency as less likely than they did before.
Perhaps even more important than the market indicators, though, was the handful of professionally managed focus groups made up of undecided swing state voter that watched the debate last night. (And no, a New York Post columnist talking to people in a Pennsylvania bar is not a focus group.)
Pollster Frank Luntz teamed up with CBS News on a 21-person focus group made up of undecided Pennsylvania voters. After the debate, 16 of them thought Clinton had won, compared to 5 who favored Trump.
A CNN focus group of undecided Florida voters was even more lopsided, with 18 out of 20 assessing the debate as a Clinton victory.
While it makes sense to wait a few days for the dust to settle before making any final judgement about the impact of the first debate, a preponderance of the available evidence point to a clear Clinton win.