Trump had a stronger connection with the studio audience in first presidential debate

New research published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that Donald Trump was more effective than Hillary Clinton in connecting with the studio audience during their first debate.

“This builds on a long-term research that I started with my book ‘Debatable Humor‘ – there I found that John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton were the most humorous candidates (based upon laughter and taking speaking time into account) during the primary campaigns,” said Patrick A. Stewart, an associate professor at the University of Arkansas and corresponding author of the study.

“During the 2012 election, I presented some of my findings to an auditorium of University of Arkansas, Fayetteville students and noticed the contagiousness of laughter when students responded to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, as well as (apparently) the studio audience at the debates.”

“I was fortunate enough to work with an interdisciplinary group of scholars to explore this question more fully during this past presidential election. More generally, my training as a political scientist included an emphasis on human ethology — this came into play while I was following a passion of mine: coaching men’s and women’s college rugby,” Stewart said.

“I observed that when my teams were successful, there was a sense of good humor to them that was denoted by laughter before, during, and after practice and games. In other words, there was a sense of playfulness that brought the respective teams together and led them to trust each other more and play even harder for each other.”

The researchers analyzed responses from the studio audience during the first general election debate between Trump and Clinton on September 26, 2016 at Hofstra University.

A group of 362 undergraduate students also watched the debate and evaluated the candidates’ performance. In addition, 14 Republicans, 11 Independents, and 9 Democrats from West Texas watched the debate and provided moment-to-moment assessments of each candidates’ likability.

Trump and Clinton both elicited four applause/cheering events from the studio audience. Applause for Clinton resulted in higher likability ratings among Democrats and Independents, but lower likability ratings among Republicans. Applause for Trump, on the other hand, didn’t show a partisan bias. Trump also elicited significantly more laughter than Clinton, provoking 14 laughter events compared to Clinton’s seven.

“Observable audience response matters in a variety of ways,” Stewart told PsyPost. “First, it bonds us together. Humans are social creatures that survive and thrive best (if at all) in groups. Laughter, applause/cheering, booing, and chanting provide reliable signals of followership (in response to the person making a comment), social connection (through the mimicry and/or contagiousness of the observable audience response), and social values (through what is being responded to and how).”

“Second, what people are responding to tells us not only about what they value, but also the leader’s connection with them. Trump appeared to have a stronger connection with the studio audience – and importantly those watching on television and other media – during the first debate than did Clinton based upon the strength of the observable audience responses of laughter and applause-cheering. Furthermore, the type of comments used by both candidates, that entailed mostly ridicule and attacks of some kind, provided a real-time reflection of how polarized the 2016 campaign was.”

“Third, we have known for a long time that ‘canned laughter’ can make even mediocre situation comedies appear humorous; the research we carried out suggests that other forms of observable audience response can affect viewers watching major political events such as debates. In other words, the intra-media effects extend beyond just laughter to potentially include applause, cheering, booing, and chanting.”

But the research includes some caveats.

“As this is an observational study carried out in ‘real-time’ there are any number of potential confounds that might have influenced our findings,” Stewart explained. “We also had one aspect of our study rendered invalid by a ceiling effect — we only anticipated there being at most ten humorous comments and the first 2016 general election presidential debate was much more raucous than any in modern history (twenty-one laughter and thirty-four observable audience responses in total).”

“However, the trade-off of experimental controls (and internal validity) for the external validity of such an important event strengthens the inferences, and more importantly, the future research questions that may be drawn.”

Stewart is also running experiments on how audience laughter influences the evaluation of leadership qualities such as competence, trustworthiness, and charisma. He is also “developing a cross-cultural observable audience response study that takes into account not just laughter, but also applause and booing, in how individuals respond to politicians.”

Responses from the audience can provide important information to public figures.

“The observable audience responses of laughter, applause-cheering, booing, and chanting all may be considered primal ‘votes’ that provided members of comparatively large groups we evolved to take part in with the ability to provide useful feedback to leaders,” Stewart explained. “In other words, the leaders were able to follow the followers’ preferences based upon the positivity-negativity (laughter and applause-cheering vs. booing) and intensity of their vocalizations.”

“Our current political environment not only provides a mismatch through mediated politics in which fewer followers have direct contact with politicians, instead watching them on television and other media, but also serves to insulate the leaders from dissenting viewpoints when politicians communicate predominantly via social media. While social media has much greater reach, it not only tends to reinforce in-group vs. out-group differences, the response choices have a distinct positivity bias, with ‘likes’ being the default response and dissent being easily ignored.”

The study, “Candidate Performance and Observable Audience Response: Laughter and Applause–Cheering During the First 2016 Clinton–Trump Presidential Debate“, was authored by Patrick A. Stewart, Austin D. Eubanks, Reagan G. Dye, Zijian H. Gong, Erik P. Bucy, Robert H. Wicks and Scott Eidelman.