Image bites, voter enthusiasm, and the 2016 Presidential Election

At the outset of this analysis, let’s be clear about one thing: there are dark reasons for Donald Trump’s rise. Among these, a nativist, sexist, patriarchal, and ethnocentrist view of the country, and a campaign based on fanciful promises beyond the power of any President to make good on—jobs, walls, trade agreements, repeal of established laws, and abandonment of strategic global alliances. Lack of specifics and news media complacency in pressing Trump about policy, potential cabinet appointments, and plans to investigate Clinton also worked to his advantage, as his candidacy became an ill-defined canvas onto which disgruntled and fearful voters could project their hopes and assuage their anxieties. 

Beyond his campaign promises, which were among the least defined and coherent in contemporary political history, Trump’s nonverbal communication was quite consistent: angry, defiant, outraged, and disgusted with the political status quo. Although he was undisciplined in his use of facial displays and gestures, fulminating one minute and flailing the next, Trump managed to project ample amounts of outrage in his nonverbal behavior and that clear display of anger gave discontented voters who were not on board with the Clinton agenda something to rally around. 

By contrast, Clinton’s expressions were much more controlled, diplomatic, reassuring, and polite. During the debates, which she by all accounts won, Clinton outlasted Trump’s antics by exuding a calm determination that was buttressed by sharp retorts. It was a diplomatic style with little populist appeal. Except for small glimpses of genuine emotion—the much-heralded “shimmy” towards the end of the first debate, a delightful rallying cry in the rain at the very end of the campaign—her expressive behavior was not a great ally. She strove to project likeability and competence but her high negatives in opinion polls demanded a much more empathetic and still forceful approach. 

Clinton did go on the attack at times during the campaign, notably during the third presidential debate against Trump, but she did so more in the condescending mode of an attorney cross-examining a witness than a champion of the people. That subtle but discernible contempt, which perhaps serves as a competence cue for supporters, was likely read as arrogance by Independents and weak partisans and could have hurt her in the end. In an election process that rests on turnout, as this one so agonizingly did, enthusiasm—which gets people to the polls—trumps competence. 

While Clinton generated sufficient enthusiasm for a lower volume election (she did win the popular vote, after all) she had less success holding together the coalition of Black, Hispanic, and younger voters that Obama built in previous elections—even with the president and Michelle Obama campaigning on her behalf. In part, she struggled to convince because she struggled to effectively emote. 

Meanwhile, Trump emoted in loud attacks, wild accusations, empty promises, and outrageous nonverbal antics. He energized his base enough to get out and vote in states that mattered. Key to his success: Trump’s expressions were unambiguous. His message of defiance and threat came across blunt and clear, even with the sound off. Whether by design or happenstance, Trump’s confrontational style of campaigning bonded supporters to his cause.

Trump’s “go to” expression is an anger/threat display—a menacing expression characterized by fixed stares and visible anger that signals competitive or hostile intent. Research has shown that threat displays are particularly effective with supporters but anathema to critics and undecideds. We witnessed this firsthand in dial tests conducted during the presidential debates with dozens of Texas voters. Republican Party identifiers expressed much more enthusiasm for Trump than Democrats ever did for Clinton. 

The screen captures opposite illustrate the high level of positive sentiment that Trump supporters felt while watching their candidate go on the attack against Clinton during the first debate (see top panel, Figure 1). In this moment, Trump deflects a question about releasing his taxes and focuses instead on the thousands of emails that Clinton purportedly deleted before handing over her private server to the FBI. The blue line, which peaks over 90 points on a 100-point sentiment scale, represents not just Republican support but genuine voter enthusiasm. 

By contrast, Democratic voters never surpassed the 70-point mark in response to Clinton, and on average felt less positively toward her than Republicans felt towards Trump (see yellow line, bottom panel). Interestingly, Independent voters responded negatively and critically to Trump’s anger/threat displays (see purple line, top panel), a trend that was reflected in polls following the first debate that showed weakening support among Independents.

But defections among weak partisans were not in numbers sufficient enough to derail his campaign, although Trump appeared to be all but finished until the late October surprise of the FBI’s discovery of yet more emails from Clinton’s private server. Clinton was exonerated a week later, just a few days before the election, but the FBI director’s reminder was all the opening Trump needed to reanimate his attacks, energize his base for one last push, and infuse his tirades against her alleged untrustworthiness with a sense of renewed force.

Figure 1. Peak ratings of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the first presidential debate. 

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