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Social Science Matters: Clinton vs. Trump - race over?

Monday 26 September, 2016 saw the first confrontation between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Expectations were high – not only about the content of the debate, but also about how the two presidential candidates would behave, and how this might influence their campaigns. We asked three researchers at the FSW: What is your view, as a social scientist, of this debate?

The Voter’s Mind is Already Made Up
psychologist Wim van der Does

I wrote this analysis several days in advance of the first debate between Clinton and Trump, because the content of the debates really doesn’t make any difference. In their voting behaviour, voters are led by emotion; facts and opinions are pressed into service after the event to rationalize their decision. In this protracted campaign, virtually every voter has already decided who they’re going to vote for. Even if some of them don’t realize it yet, and they’re still searching for a rationalization – in fact their mind was made up long ago.

In this election the 2 most unpopular candidates ever are pitted against one another. Both of them have already had so much public exposure, over such a long period of time, that three little debates are not going to transform aversion to approval. The only thing the debates can do is provide voters with a rationalization for voting for one or other of the candidates in spite of that aversion.

Trump clearly has the advantage here: the aversion to Trump is based on the mass of denigrating, untruthful and divisive comments he has notched up. All he has to do is control his tongue – and he has frequently demonstrated that he is capable of this. The aversion to Clinton, on the other hand, is based on distrust – people doubt her integrity. This is the result of many years of Republican hate campaigns, crowned by cunning framing ploys by Trump and mistakes by Clinton herself. This image is much more difficult to change in a couple of hours – let alone in the couple of soundbites that most people retain.

Clinton can deliver an immaculate debate performance, and people will still distrust her. Trump merely has to show himself at his most reasonable and he may be given the benefit of the doubt.

For more (in Dutch) on the Clinton-Trump psychological analysis, see Dousa.nl: Clinton-Trump psychologische analyse.

The True Loser is the American Viewer
- anthropologist Janine Prins

As a visual anthropologist, I watched the whole debate, including the subsequent commentary, live on CNN, because of the way the broadcaster drew the viewer in as a participant in this clash of the Titans. After all, form plays a large role in determining content, and this applies not only to the theatrical, rhetorical performances of the protagonists, but also to the visual staging.

Of all the broadcasters, CNN had chosen the most radical option of framing the debate as a duel, with a split screen. This operated as a magnifying glass that invited the viewer to compare the speakers’ every tiny facial expression and mutual interaction.

Accordingly, the commentators in the subsequent discussion too were primarily concerned with how the speakers came across, and their degree of outward composure – the uncontrolled sniffing of Trump, or the downward gaze of Clinton, who was judged to have directed too little attention to the audience. The content of all that’s at stake only occasionally intruded on the proceedings, both during the debate and in the commentary. In this first round, at any rate, content really didn’t seem to be the issue.

Nonetheless, in my view CNN’s audiovisual focus is irresponsible. In this way, politically opposed viewpoints are reduced to a duel between personalities. Probably the demands of the viewing figures rate form more highly than content.

The true loser in this sort of ‘infotainment’ is ultimately the man or woman on the street. This certainly seemed to be the case for the participants in a focus group for undecided voters in Orlando: they had heard too little content to form any basis to choose from.

 Clinton Won, but the Horserace Continues
- political scientist Tromble

Hillary Clinton won this debate. Handily. Despite starting out relatively well, about 15 minutes into the debate, Trump became so flustered by Clinton’s subtle but constant goading that he began making one gaffe after the next—effectively admitting that he does not pay federal income tax, claiming ISIS has been around for 30 years, talking about Rosie O’Donnell, and so on. By the end, his sentences barely made sense. Clinton, in contrast, remained cool, calm, and collected in the face of Trump’s attacks, and she deftly pivoted away from her own controversies (especially emails) back to policy issues.

And yet, despite early consensus among American media pundits that Clinton had easily prevailed, commentators quickly began minimizing her victory: She won, but does it really matter? Would it effect the polls? After a week of pumping up this debate as the most consequential event in the campaign, suddenly commentators are wondering if it really was that important after all. Is this a contradiction? No, it’s not. It’s just the horserace narrative. The debate was significant when it could generate a media audience. But now that it is over, there are 5 more weeks of campaigning to cover. And who will pay attention if the race does not remain close?

Unfortunately, though, political science research tells us that covering elections—and politics more broadly—as a never-ending horserace generates public cynicism. As Joseph Cappella and Kathleen Jamieson have shown, when politics is boiled down to winning and losing, people presume that politicians are merely self-interested. They do not care about solving problems and improving society. They only care about securing the win, defeating their opponents. Politics, it seems, is nothing more than a game. And so, while the drama of this horserace may keep people around the world riveted, it is also likely to make us all a lot more pessimistic and scornful.

See for more: Clinton won, but the horserace continues.


Social Science Matters – a soapbox for social scientists

Social Science Matters is an online variant on London’s famous Speakers’ Corner – a platform for the researchers in the various disciplines in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences to react to the news. This soapbox gives the social scientists of the faculty the opportunity to voice their opinions on current affairs from the point of view of their own areas of expertise.

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