How Camera Framing Can Change Voters' Perceptions in Primary Debates

Timely new research reveals that, in televised debates, producers give some candidates a more favorable visual treatment than others—and in 2016, the big winner was Donald Trump.
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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.

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."

The researchers conducted a shot-by-shot analysis of the first two Republican primary debates, on Fox News and CNN, respectively, and the first two Democratic debates, on CNN and CBS. They compared the amount of camera time given to each candidate, as well as "the visual frames used in portraying the candidates and their leadership capacity."

Specifically, the researchers examined how often each candidate was seen in a "micro-level shot," in which he or she was the sole person on the screen; a "competitive/comparative shot, which places candidates side by side, either physically or through a split screen"; or a multi-candidate shot, in which a candidate is seen as part of a group that also includes at least two competitors. That last type of visual "diminishes [a candidate's] status," the researchers argue.

They found that "the front-runners from both political parties benefited from preferential visual coverage." Still, as they report in the journal Politics and the Life Sciences, "Donald Trump stood out [most] in terms of the visual priming and framing that presented him as a serious contender."

The candidates who were leading the polls at that early stage in the race—Trump and Jeb Bush on the Republican side, and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side—received "markedly more camera time" than their competitors, the researchers report. But Trump was the true outlier, receiving "substantially longer camera fixations" than any other candidate from either party.

"During the Fox News debate, Trump was proportionately much less likely to be presented in multiple-candidate shots, and much more likely to be seen in two-shots during the CNN debate," they add. In visual terms, he was granted alpha-male status, which arguably helped voters take him more seriously as a potential president.

Stewart and his colleagues are not arguing that the producers and directors of these highly watched telecasts were politically biased in favor of Trump. But they point out that the networks are for-profit organizations that are interested in getting the highest possible ratings for these events. Thus it's not a surprise that they'd focus more attention on a face television viewers will recognize and respond to—positively or negatively.

So as you watch this new round of debates, take note of which candidates you are looking at, and how they are framed. As the researchers conclude, the way these politicians are depicted visually is "perhaps a more primal, subtle, and pervasive means by which the media affects public perceptions of candidates."

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