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Primary Debates: How Camera Framing Can Change Voters’ Perceptions

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Republican presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Jeb Bush share a moment during the Republican Presidential Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, on September 16th, 2015.

As the presidential primary debates get underway this week, a commonly asked question is “What will you be looking for?” But new research suggests an even more important question is “What will you be looking at?”

Since the 1960 Kennedy–Nixon campaign, debates have been made-for-television affairs, which means the impressions they convey are visual as well as verbal. Decisions by the producers regarding which candidate dominates the screen at any given moment therefore matter greatly, allowing one or two contenders to stand out in a crowded field.

New research suggests that’s precisely what happened in the early 2016 debates, giving an important advantage to a certain veteran of reality television who instinctively understood the camera-enticing value of big gestures and exaggerated facial expressions.

“In debates with numerous candidates on stage, there were big winners and big losers,” writes a research team led by political scientist Patrick Stewart of the University of Arkansas–Fayetteville. In terms of visual dominance, “during the early debates of the 2016 presidential election, the big winner was Donald Trump.”

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