Why the pundits are wrong about Hillary Clinton dominating the debate
Posted by admin on 29th September 2016

The vast majority of pundits declared Hillary Clinton the decisive winner of this week’s debate.

This includes both conservative and liberal pundits. For instance, Douglas Schoen of Fox News wrote:

“She was ready for all of his quips with a litany of detail that may have bored the viewer at points, but showed why she is winning on qualifications, experience and temperament in every poll.”

However, most post-debate online polls are breaking for Donald Trump as the winner. These polls are not rigorous, in that anyone can vote in them multiple times, regardless of whether they would vote in the actual election. Still, some of these polls have hundreds of thousands of votes. They provide significant evidence of enthusiasm for Trump’s debate performance and suggest that the pundits are wrong about Clinton dominating the debate.

So what explains this difference between the polls and the pundits?

As an expert on the role of emotional intelligence in public life, including in debates, I have long observed that mainstream media commentators don’t give sufficient credit to the role of emotions in shaping public perceptions.

Understanding the impact of emotions in politics is key for making an accurate prediction of how debates will impact voting.

Pundits vs. the public

Pundits tend to focus on the substance of the debate by analyzing the content of each candidate’s statements. Schoen’s quote above is typical of what pundits value: policy details that express appropriate qualifications and experience.

This focus on content fails to fully reflect what actually influences the viewing public – body language and tone of voice.

The first-ever presidential debate, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, was apparently seen as a tie by those who listened on the radio. Yet, those who watched on television and got to compare the energetic and healthy-looking Kennedy with the pale, shifty-eyed Nixon saw the former as the winner.

In the presidential debates most Americans focus more on nonverbal cues of body language, and remember them after the debate is over, compared to the content of what is said, according to David Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies, a private nonprofit research center. These nonverbals are of fundamental importance to communication, and they often mean more than what is actually being said.

This is something that traditional pundits fail to give due credit. This failure can be seen in previous debates in which Trump participated for the Republican presidential nomination. In most cases, pundits declared that Trump was defeated by his competitors, but he won in post-debate online polling and ended up with the nomination.

Research on emotional intelligence provides key clues for why Trump ended up on top. Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive and influence the emotions of others. While we perceive ourselves to be rational beings, in reality studies show that our emotions dominate most of our mental processes.

Donald Trump during the first presidential debate.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Emotional intelligence is especially important for leaders due to the phenomenon of emotional contagion – the ability to “infect” large numbers of people with your emotions. Research shows that emotionally intelligent leaders are especially skilled at emotional contagion. This is a fundamental component of what scholars call charisma, the whole complement of factors that enables a leader to influence others through the leader’s personality.

In my work on the role of emotional intelligence in public life, I have long highlighted Trump’s strength in playing to the emotions of his audience. He has succeeded in being perceived by the public as more honest and authentic, despite fact checkers saying otherwise.