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WSU research: Trump voters reacted more strongly to debate attacks, according to their sweat

first lady Melania Trump, left, and President Donald Trump, center, remain on stage as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, right, walk away at the conclusion of the second and final presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.  (Julio Cortez)

Supporters of President Donald Trump who took part in a scientific study while watching Thursday’s debate reacted more strongly than others when one candidate attacked the other, researchers found.

They had a strong positive response when Trump attacked challenger and former Vice President Joe Biden, and a strong negative response when Biden attacked Trump, said Paul Bolls, associate dean of the Murrow College of Communications at Washington State University.

Biden supporters and those who told researchers they were undecided had less responses overall to the attacks. Biden supporters, however, did have a strong negative response when Trump brought up allegations against Hunter Biden, and when he compared himself to President Abraham Lincoln.

“They really did not like that,” Bolls said of the Lincoln comparison.

His area of research focuses on how the mind processes and is influenced by media content. On Thursday night, he was watching on a computer monitor in Pullman the responses of 39 volunteers in a Philadelphia research facility as they viewed the televised debate.

The volunteers – 12 Trump supporters, 12 Biden supporters and 15 undecided voters – were hooked up to a system called NeuroLynQ, developed by the Shimmer technology company that creates sensor products people can wear. The sensors measured changes in sweat gland activity, which is tied to the sympathetic nervous system.

All three groups showed changes in their response levels when the candidates talked about the COVID-19 pandemic and race, and during the discussion of oil, natural gas fracking, the environment and the economy. But Trump supporters responded most strongly to attacks across the board.

“That pattern backs up earlier peer-reviewed research that conservatives respond more strongly to attacks,” Bolls said.

Undecided voters didn’t respond especially strongly to the performances of either candidate, which some commentators suggested during the post-debate coverage.

Based on data from the volunteers, “the pundits got that right,” he said.

The study group did respond more strongly and positively to Biden’s closing statement of unity than to Trump’s closing statement, Bolls said.

“Not so much that I would say ‘Wow, they’re really reaching people!’ ” he added. “It was more of a subtle shift.”

But if he was looking at the data as a consultant for the Biden campaign, he’d say do more of that. If he was consulting for the Trump campaign, he’d say do more focusing on energizing your base.

Bolls isn’t consulting with campaigns but conducting ongoing research on the intersection of emotion, media and politics.

A different group of volunteers was monitored for the first debate. The emotional responses for Thursday’s debate were weaker but Trump was more effective at resonating with his supporters.

The two debates were so different that those changes aren’t surprising, Bolls said.

During the 2016 presidential election, he was part of a team at Texas Tech studying the responses for the first and third debates between Trump and Hillary Clinton.

His working hypothesis is that in an intense election environment, a candidate who is more effective at emotionally resonating with supporters at a raw level has a greater likelihood of winning.

“That was Trump’s weapon against Hillary Clinton and it’s still effective,” Bolls said.

Even with the type of technology being used, a group of 39 volunteers is a relatively small sample size, so he and other researchers approach the results with “a sense of caution,” he said. But it does provide very interesting data points for their future research.