With the first round of presidential primary debates just two weeks away, a new study analyzes their historic effectiveness on shifting public perception of a candidate.
Patrick Stewart, associate professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, analyzed six 2012 Republican Party primary debates for a study in the June issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly, and found that venue and speaking time directly affect applause and laughter.
Further, Stewart found that laughter benefited secondary candidates more than front-runners in televised debates by improving their likability among viewers. Debate venue also plays a significant role in determining applause.
"Laughter is honest, it tells us what the audience is really thinking, who they are really supporting," Stewart said, noting that instructing live audiences of televised debates to hold their applause can skew public perception of a candidate's popularity.
While front-runner candidates were found in the study to be given more speaking time than second-tier candidates, speaking time displayed a negative relationship with audience laughter. That finding suggests that second-tier candidates can positively shift their public perception with a shorter speaking time by inducing audience laughter in primary debates.
"Enjoy and appreciate the humor – someone that can tell a joke is really telling us a lot about their intelligence, their personality and their values," Stewart said. "But they also might be hiding something, especially if they are using it to divert attention."
Stewart began researching how debates help leaders and their audience to develop a connection after the last presidential election in 2008. He is an expert in non-verbal communication and trained to analyze facial movements as a certified Facial Action Coding System coder.
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"Polls and Elections: Do the Presidential Primary Debates Matter? Measuring Candidate Speaking Time and Audience Response during the 2012 Primaries." Presidential Studies Quarterly, 45: 361–381. doi: 10.1111/psq.12191