Undecided voters had few responses to presidential debates, study shows

Undecided, Biden, Trump voters had intense emotional response when Trump said he was least racist person in debate



It is difficult to say who will win the presidential election because of the low emotional response from undecided voters. The winner will depend on which candidate made a subconscious impact on undecided voters.

BRADLEY GAMBLE, Evergreen reporter

A study found that voters supporting President Donald Trump had stronger emotional responses to the presidential debates than undecided voters and supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Trump voters had an intense response when the presidential candidates were attacking each other, said Paul Bolls, associate dean of research and graduate studies at WSU’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. He said he predicted Trump voters would have more intense reactions during the debates based on studies he conducted during the 2016 election.

Bolls said he found that Trump resonated on a less conscious, raw-emotional level better than all other candidates in 2016.

Undecided voters had few emotional responses to either candidate, said Glenn Kessler, president and CEO of HCD Research. HCD Research is a company that conducts market research.

“They weren’t really impacted by the yelling back-and-forth and the interrupting,” he said. “They didn’t care. They weren’t buying into it.”

Voters were divided into three groups based on who they expressed support for, Bolls said. There were 13 voters supporting Trump, 12 voters supporting Joe Biden and 18 undecided voters.

The researchers used physiological measures to calculate the emotional response of the voters through sensors, Bolls said. Physiological measures are sensitive to subconscious responses and can pull accurate data from smaller testing sample sizes.

The sensors were placed on the voters’ middle and ring fingers below the knuckles, he said. The sensors detect responses and emotional intensity through sweat gland activity.

The researchers would normally have measured voters’ attention and emotions during the debate, Kessler said.

“If we were to do this another time, we would use two or three measures to learn more about what excited them, kept their attention and whether they had a positive or negative response,” he said.

They decided not to test these measures because of the pandemic, Kessler said. The researchers wanted to minimize the time of physical contact when attaching the sensors to the voters so they attached fewer sensors.

The first debate had fewer moments that caused an emotional response from voters than the second debate, Kessler said. But, the emotional responses were more intense during the first debate.

There was a strong emotional response from Trump voters, Biden voters and undecided voters during the second debate when Trump said he was the least racist person in the room, Bolls said.

It is hard to say how this election will play out given the low intensity of responses from undecided voters, Bolls said. It will depend on which candidate was able to make a positive subconscious impact with undecided voters.

“Unconscious, real-time responses have a stronger effect on behavior than post-debate, conscious responses,” he said.