The first presidential general election debate of 2016 was historic in many ways, featuring two unique candidates and the largest audience in history with just over 84 million viewers. We explore the emotional impact of this widely-viewed debate on viewers in our new article, entitled “Gender Differences in Emotional Reactions to the 2016 Presidential Debates.” As we discuss in our article, research has shown for decades that debates impact how people know and think about presidential candidates. However, we know far less about how men and women respond to the candidates they are exposed to during these events. Given the prominent discussions of gender during the campaign (e.g., Donald Trump’s high-profile comments about women’s appearances, Clinton highlighting her glass-ceiling breaking nomination and fundraising with a so-called “woman card”), we expected that men and women might experience these widely viewed political events differently, and that their reactions to the debate might lead them towards different perceptions of the candidates.
Through the use of a controlled within-subjects experiment, our study allowed us to measure changes in attitudes and responses to the candidates after exposure to the debate. In addition, we examined real-time reaction to the candidates by assessing people’s emotional responses during the debate by utilizing facial expression software. Compared with previous work which relies on subjects’ self-reported emotional responses (often after the debate is over), this facial expression software allowed us to measure emotion without disrupting the debate viewers. Using the data we collected, we examine how men and women responded to candidates’ messaging during the debate and the impact those responses had on how people felt about the candidates after viewing the debate. Other scholarship in the field indicated that women may be more likely to express so-called ‘internalizing’ emotions like sadness and fear, while men are more likely to express ‘externalizing’ emotions like anger, disgust and contempt. We expected to see this pattern in response to the debate, hypothesizing that: (H1) men and women will differ in their emotional reaction to the presidential debate, with men being more likely to show externalizing emotions and women more likely to exhibit internalizing emotions. Largely due to the salience of gender during the campaign, we also hypothesized the impact of emotional responses might be greater on women’s evaluations of the candidates.
Our data indicate that men and women in our study experienced different emotional reactions during the debate, offering some support for our first hypothesis. Women expressed ‘internalizing’ emotions like sadness twice as often as men during the debate. Conversely, men expressed ‘externalizing’ emotions like anger and disgust more often than women throughout the debate. There were also differences in when men and women expressed these emotions. For example, our data indicated that women’s expressions of sadness and men’s expressions of anger increased during periods when Clinton spoke more. During periods when Trump talked more, both men and women were more likely to show contempt, and men’s displays of disgust escalated. We also found support for our second hypothesis, with the data indicating that the impact of emotional expressions were more powerful for women than men in predicting post-debate evaluations of the candidates’ debate performance, particularly in their evaluations of Trump’s performance. For example, as women show more expressions of fear, their ratings of Trump’s performance in the debate decreases significantly, women become substantially more negative in their evaluations of Trump and more positive in their assessments of Clinton. In contrast, as men express more fear, their evaluations of the candidates’ debate performance and changes in their scores on the candidates’ feeling thermometers barely budge.
Overall, we find that emotions matter. Even when we control for other attitudes and identities, emotional responses impacted viewer’s beliefs about the candidates. Second, the nature and political impact of emotions are different for men and women. Men and women have different emotional responses to the debate and these responses differentially influenced their assessments of the candidates. While we caution readers about generalizing from this study since 2016 is a unique election year, we do encourage scholars to continue to explore the role of emotions by employing innovative methods, such as utilizing facial expression software, to monitor people’s reactions to political stimuli so we can better understand how emotions affect people’s views of the political world.