Professor Uses Software to Examine Emotions Toward 2016 Presidential Candidates

While watching presidential nominee Donald Trump deliver his primary election victory speech in New Jersey, where he implied that Hillary Clinton was “playing the woman’s card,” Political Science Professor Sarah Gershon noticed two things. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was unbothered. But a slight grimace from his wife, Mary Pat Christie, suggested the same may or may not have been true for her. 

At that moment, Gershon knew that the 2016 presidential election was one worth studying.

Gershon has joined forces with Kim Fridkin of Arizona State University to analyze emotional responses to the 2016 presidential debates using cutting-edge facial recognition software. The professors used a National Science Foundation (NSF) RAPID grant to purchase the software.

“This software isn’t widely used in our discipline, so we hope to speak to the utility of this method,” Gershon said. “I’m excited to find out what this method of study will tell us about the debates that we wouldn’t be able to find using other traditional experimental methods. I’m happy to be a part of a small group of scholars using this tool.”

Gershon and Fridkin will record sample groups from their respective universities watching the debates and use the software to analyze facial expressions and gestures.

From a smile to a smirk to a slight raise of the eyebrow, the software will be able to examine expressions associated with emotional changes or reactions.

It will also allow a more subtle approach to studying emotional expressions in comparison to methods used in traditional debate studies, said Gershon.

“Our goal is to better understand how people learn about politics and their reactions to the debate,” she said. “The reason studying political debates is important is because they impact voter attitudes about political candidates. Given that the first debate was the most watched in history, it is important to understand how Trump and Clinton’s performance affected support for them.”

As citizens from different backgrounds and ethnicities gather to watch 90 commercial-free minutes of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in their final debate, the scholars anticipate strong favorable and unfavorable reactions.

“The campaign is so unpredictable. People have such strong feelings towards both candidates,” Gershon said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what happens, as I think a lot of Americans will be watching and our results will speak directly to what’s going on.”

The third presidential debate will air Wed., Oct. 19 at 9 p.m.

About the NSF Rapid Grant

The NSF Rapid Grant is used to fund projects that have severe urgency in regards to availability and/or access to data, facilities or equipment.