In CNN's lead-up to Thursday night's Republican presidential debate, anchor Anderson Cooper asked the network's correspondents covering each candidate what to expect. He got nearly identical answers: "He's going to try to seem presidential."
By "presidential," the reporters meant dignified, restrained, less volatile. And indeed, the candidates—even Donald Trump—displayed far less anger than they had in previous debates.
But according to David Clementson, the assumption that speaking in a measured, reasonable way automatically conveys an aura of trustworthiness and "presidentiality" is mistaken.
Rather, the Ohio State University scholar, who entered academia after spending years in the worlds of politics and media, reports the type of language that is viewed as presidential varies from year to year, and from person to person.
His research helps explain Trump's success, and identifies a serious challenge Hillary Clinton faces in the general election.
In a study to be published later this year in the journal Presidential Studies Quarterly, Clementson presents evidence that we look favorably at presidential candidates who use restrained language when our personal economic situation looks bright.
But if we're fearful about the future—which polls suggest is true for a majority of the electorate at the moment—we expect candidates to reflect back our emotional turmoil. Those who do come across as more trustworthy, and—here's that word again—presidential.
A former campaign manager "for a victorious Democrat in North Carolina, and a victorious Republican in Virginia," Clementson is a Ph.D. student in Ohio State's School of Communication. He studies the effectiveness of different types of language in political communication—a line of research that, he notes, can be traced back to 1939.
Clementson described his research in a recent telephone interview.
Donald Trump has broken so many rules in his current presidential campaign, yet he's on the verge of capturing the Republican nomination. As someone who studies politics and language, how do you explain his success to date?
He is more passionate and outspoken about his feelings [than his opponents], and this reflects how people feel about the economy. Throughout this campaign, almost every other candidate has been saying, "I know the voters are angry, but...." Trump seems to be the only one who says, "I know the voters are angry, and so, therefore...."
Pundits and political consultants widely assumed his in-your-face approach would quickly grow old, but it has not. Your soon-to-be-published study helps explain why. Can you describe it?
The study was conducted in October 2012, right before the last election; it featured about 300 students from the University of Miami, where, coincidentally, Thursday night's debate took place.
They first read one of two economic scenarios, which we designed to be salient for college students. In one scenario, we described that, in terms of finding employment, they'd be at the end of the line. In the other, we wrote that students are getting jobs right out of college, and the federal government was forgiving vast portions of student loans.
So they were told the economy either looked bleak or relatively rosy for them. After that?
Then they read an excerpt from a stump speech of a hypothetical presidential candidate. One version was high-intensity, one was low-intensity. The low-intensity version featured phrases like "I appreciate your consideration. Your vote is an opportunity to express your opinion for the direction of our future." The high-intensity version stated "Your vote will determine the fate of this country. Your children, and your children's children, are depending on you. A vote for me is a vote for our livelihood."
The high-emotion version actually seems pretty restrained by 2016 standards.
When this study was going through the review process last year, there was a fair amount of criticism that my stimuli weren't very realistic—that a politician would not talk in such emotional terms.
But even using what now seems like a relatively mild emotional appeal, you found differences in the persuasiveness of the speeches, based on whether a participant had been primed to see their personal economic future as bright or bleak.
Yes. We found that when the economy is [seen as] bad, a candidate is perceived as more presidential, and more trustworthy, if he uses high-intensity language. The opposite is true in economically stable circumstances.
So by using charged language, Trump appeals to financially frustrated people at a gut level. Do you think he intuited that this was the right moment for a blunt, emotional approach?
Whether he knew beforehand, and it was all strategic, or whether it just took off and he is pleasantly surprised, I have no idea. Love him or hate him, everyone acknowledges that he's a genius in reading his audience, and knowing what people want.
This dynamic also explains the greater-than-expected success of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. To some people, he comes across as an angry old man, but to many who are suffering economically, he is reflecting back their frustrations. So where does this leave Hillary Clinton?
In a double bind. It's not fair, but 60 years of research strongly indicate that speeches are less credible, and less persuasive, if they're given by a female who is using high-intensity language. It's not just males thinking of her as shrill; women are just as aversive to women using high-intensity language, if not more so.
So Hillary has a need to use hyperbole and ramp up her rhetoric [to fit the mood of the electorate], but it doesn't work because of her gender.
That would appear to give Trump something of an advantage. However, if Thursday's debate is any indication, he is already starting to tone down his rhetoric in anticipation of the general election. In doing so, does he risk losing the connection he has forged with the economically stressed?
If public opinion stays where it is today—where eight out of 10 voters say they're angry, and things are heading in the wrong direction—Trump has to maintain his high-intensity language to stay presidential and trustworthy in the minds of those voters.
As much as the commentators on the 24-hour news channels say, "He's got to tone down his rhetoric to be presidential," that is not correct. My study shows you are perceived as presidential if you speak to the times.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.