The Psychology of Presidential TV Debates

the psychology of presidential debatesDepending on the performance of the candidates, the televised debate between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton might determine the next President of the United States.

Psychology dramatically influences the way such debates are perceived by the public and their impact, so both candidates most probably consider deploying psychology in their planning for the encounter.

A new study published in the academic journal, Electoral Studies, points out the popular view is that certain dramatic moments on TV supposedly shaped the outcome of past US Presidential elections, transforming particular debates into milestones in American political history: Richard Nixon’s make-up problems in 1960; Gerald Ford’s howler about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe in 1976; Ronald Reagan’s grandfatherly dismissal of Jimmy Carter’s verbal attacks (“There you go again.”) in 1980; Michael Dukakis’ strangely robotic response in 1988 to a question about the death penalty that invoked the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife; Al Gore’s trivializing sighs in 2000; and, more recently, Barack Obama’s unflustered self-confidence vs. John McCain’s edgy intensity.

Debate Performance

In this new study, two university academics, Peter Schrott and David Lanoue analyzed 26 televised presidential candidate debates, as well as the polling before and after, dating from the famous encounter between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960, to Barack Obama’s three debates with John McCain in 2008.

Their study, entitled  “The power and limitations of televised presidential debates: Assessing the real impact of candidate performance on public opinion and vote choice,” found the majority evaluations by the public over who ‘won’ or ‘lost’ simply represent prior personal preferences and biases towards or against a candidate, as well as attitudes toward the incumbent administration. The debate itself has relatively little impact. So in a substantial proportion of the time it simply confirms prior biases.

The academics, based at Heilbronn University, Germany and Columbus State University, USA, argue that the strong psychological filters through which supporters and enemies of the candidates view a debate performance, mean that it would seemingly take a “near total meltdown” during the televised event itself for candidates we didn’t support at the beginning of the debate, ever to be declared the loser.

Televised debates change public opinion only if one candidate’s performance is so obviously superior to their rival, that even opposed supporters must concede the reality of their victory.

Schrott and Lanoue point to the importance of the psychology of ‘cognitive consistency’ which influences us, being the drive to interpret new information in a way that conforms to our pre-existing partialities. Thus, there is a very strong tendency for people to think that their preferred candidate from before the debate, won the debate afterwards.

So, in the first Kennedy–Nixon debate in 1960, the finding from polling was that pre-debate Kennedy supporters were far more likely to name the Democratic nominee as the winner when compared to pre-debate Nixon supporters.

But some debate performances are so effective or deficient that they can overcome even the most powerful cognitive biases. For example, a substantial number of pre-debate Nixon backers were either able to acknowledge Kennedy’s superior performance or at least to declare the result to be a tie.

A baseline expectation can be developed by looking at each candidate’s pre-debate standing in the polls and “over-performance” or “under-performance” in a televised debate can then be calculated based on whether the percentage of respondents naming a candidate as the debate winner exceeds or falls short of the percentage naming that candidate as their preference in “horse race” surveys.

Under Performance vs. Over Performance

This kind of analysis finds that under-performance is far more common than over-performance which means that significant debates are typically lost, rather than won.

This finding might suggest that psychological strategists on either side might be pressing for ‘meltdown’ tactics, which means trying to goad or provoke the rival candidate into a gaffe or a seriously untoward reaction.

Another key psychological strategy might be to do the unexpected – to behave in ways that are opposite to what your rival’s supporters are expecting in an attempt to get them to change their mind about you, based on the assumption that your own core support is not going to desert you should you be a bit different to what they are expecting.

It might also unnerve your opponent.

But another fundamental psychological aspect of this debate is going to be how the fact of a first female Presidential candidate gets handled.

In a recent study entitled, “Winning words: Individual differences in linguistic style among U.S. presidential and vice presidential candidates,” Richard Slatcher, Cindy Chung, James Pennebaker and Lori Stone point out that in a previous investigation, when asked to describe ‘‘a good president’’ 61% of participants characterized the role as masculine, 0% as feminine, and the remaining percent as undifferentiated or androgynous.

Slatcher, Chung, Pennebaker and Stone found in their study, published in the “Journal of Research in Personality,” that from analyzing the transcripts of 271 televised interviews, press conferences and campaign debates of presidential candidates John Kerry, John Edwards, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, that of the four candidates, Edwards’ language use was the most feminine.

The authors of this study, based at The University of Texas at Austin, point out that in general, women tend to use greater numbers of references to others, fewer references to money, fewer swear words, fewer negations and more words that express positive feelings.

In short, their language is often more warm and personal compared to that of men.

It may not be particularly surprising that Edwards had the most feminine and Cheney the least feminine speaking style of the four candidates. But Cheney’s more masculine speaking style may actually have benefited his party’s presidential image, the authors of this study argue, given the voter preference for the role of President as being more ‘masculine’.

Such impressions of candidates’ personalities have been shown to be robust and powerful predictors of vote choice.

Linguistic markers of depression, were derived by analyzing and comparing the language of the depressed compared with the never-depressed as well as examining the poems of nine poets who committed suicide and nine matched poets who did not commit suicide, uncovers linguistic indicators of suicidality.

Depressive Language

Depressive language is marked by high levels of 1st-person singular words (e.g., ‘‘I,’’ ‘‘me,’’ ‘‘my’’), physical words (e.g., ‘‘ache,’’ ‘‘sleep’’), negative emotion words (e.g., ‘‘hate,’’ ‘‘worthless’’), and low levels of positive emotion words.

One of the more intriguing findings of this study was that compared to the two Republicans, the two Democrats—Kerry in particular—used language most similar to that of a depressed person.

Previous research indicates politicians’ displays of emotion can have a powerful effect on vote choice.

Voters are most favorable toward those candidates who are the most optimistic and highest in positive emotion, and this psychological finding is particularly interesting in the light of the upcoming presidential debate, as the latest research suggests it’s in the arena of emotional tone that the greatest divergence is now occurring between the two candidates.

Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker from the University of Texas at Austin have recently published a psychological comparison of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton using their acceptance speeches at their respective party conventions.

They calculated the percentage of emotionally-tinged words within the two acceptance speeches and their findings are published on the site; The authors conclude from their psychological analysis that the most obvious difference between the two speeches was in their emotional tones.

During the primary debates, Trump tended to be relatively positive and upbeat, but during his acceptance speech, Trump was uncharacteristically negative and pessimistic, this analysis of his words revealed.

Trump painted a dark portrait of the world, according to Jordan and Pennebaker.  To him, the current outlook is bleak, and we have to “make America great again.”

Clinton, on the other hand, Jordan and Pennebake report, gave a more upbeat, optimistic speech.  Their analysis suggests that she is claiming that for all the problems left to be solved, the nation is in a fundamentally good place.

Perhaps election success will be delivered to which candidate is best at the psychological task of correctly matching, or reflecting, the mood of the nation.


The Psychology of Presidential TV Debates

Dr. Raj Persaud & Dr. Peter Bruggen

Dr. Raj Persaud & Dr. Peter Bruggen are regular contributors to Psych Central Professional. Dr. Rajendra Persaud, also known as Raj Persaud, is a leading consultant psychiatrist, broadcaster and author of popular books about psychiatry. He is well known for raising public awareness of psychiatric and mental health issues in the general media. He has published five popular books and has received numerous awards. The Times recently placed him as one of the Top Twenty Mental Health Gurus in the world.

Dr. Peter Bruggen was part of the UK Royal College of Psychiatrist's Podcast Editor Team, with Dr. Persaud. From 1969 to 1994 he was a consultant psychiatrist at Hill End Adolescent Unit, St Albans. He was also a consultant psychiatrist from 1969-90 at the Tavistock Clinic. His work has featured family therapy at the death bed, working with families in the community rather than admitting adolescents to hospital, and staff relationships. Dr. Bruggen has also written three books, including Surviving Adolescence and Helping Families (both with Charles O'Brien), and Who Cares? True Stories of the NHS Reforms, for which he conducted face-to-face interviews with one-hundred people.


APA Reference
Dr. Peter Bruggen, D. (2019). The Psychology of Presidential TV Debates. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 25 Sep 2019
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 25 Sep 2019
Published on All rights reserved.