Watching the 2016 presidential debates

Patrick A. Stewart, Ph.D. (


If a picture is worth a thousand words, volumes will be spoken during the upcoming televised U.S. presidential debates. At thirty frames per second, the facial displays, vocalizations, body movements, and, yes, even the words themselves, will enlighten TV viewers concerning Hillary Clinton and Donald Trumps’ personality, character, and policy stances.

These nonverbal cues and signals have been explored in extensive detail in Politics and the Life Sciences’ special virtual issue Nonverbal Behavior and Leadership: Empirical Studies of Political Signals and Cues, with eight articles chosen from the journal’s over thirty years of academic contributions (and available for free over the next two months). Although static cues of the candidates’ physical capacity and their ever-changing signals of behavioral intent play a powerful role in understanding political behavior during debates, they matter only if debate watchers actually see them. And even then, how each of the multiple networks covering the presidential debates present the candidates will likely influence the public’s perceptions, and possibly their vote.

If the primary debates are any indicator, there is no doubt that each network covering the three presidential (and one vice-presidential) debates will reap an unprecedented bounty of attention and financial gain. And while the networks will share a common feed from C-SPAN, with the side-by-side split-screen approach it has used since 2004, it can be expected that the networks will be tempted to use a range of production approaches to differentiate themselves from the others and attract more viewers. The risk is that the choices made will promote, however subtly, one candidate over another.

While some media visual bias may be more easily spotted than others, the subtle, yet highly important production choices – duration and type of camera shots, angles, and camera movement – can play a major role in our perceptions of candidates. In my study of the initial two debates for each political party (Fox News and CNN for the Republicans; CNN and CBS for the Democrats), we see patterns of shot choices that may



The camera shot choices made by debate producers influence how we perceive candidates. Most obviously, the more time a candidate is on screen, the more likely they will be perceived as leaders by virtue of dominating our attention. And when a candidate’s head-and-shoulders are the sole focus of the camera shot and our attention, this image offers the viewer a chance to “cast” the candidate in the role of president, with the virtual face-to-face connection providing a sense of intimacy. With this type of shot, viewers may be swayed to trust candidates that look and act like leaders.



Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduces himself to the crowd. (Source: FOX News prime time presidential debate August 6, 2015)

For instance, in the first debate Fox News producers gave Trump four minutes more camera time than his closest competitor, Jeb Bush. They likewise treated him to the greatest proportion of time in solo shots, albeit by only a slight margin. Likewise, in both debates studied, Clinton had more time in front of the camera than closest competitor Bernie Sanders, while at the same time having a slightly greater proportion of solo shots than Sanders and most other competitors.



On the other hand, when candidates are shown alongside one of their opponents, either in side-by-side or split-screen shots, they are likely seen as worthy, viable competitors. These side-by-side shots highlight political differences, but at the same time they also offer viewers insights about a candidate’s personal skills or subtle behavioral clues to a candidate’s inner thoughts. For instance, the split-screen ideological conflict between Chris Christie and Rand Paul in both Fox and CNN debates with their pointing and finger jabbing from the far sides of the stage brought their politics into immediate and visceral conflict for viewers at home.

Split-screen shot


 From opposite ends of the stage and party, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul debate over the Fourth Amendment. (Source: FOX News prime time presidential debate August 6, 2015)

At the same time, in both debates front-runner Trump likewise spent more of his time in these competitive shots when compared with all other competitors, as did Clinton with both candidates likely benefitting from comparisons.

Side-by-side shot


Trump discusses his vision of the wall he intends to build along the border. (Source: FOX News prime time presidential debate August 6, 2015)


Wide-angle shots

The camera shots producers choose can likewise reduce a candidate’s low standing in the eyes of a viewer. When portrayed in a wide-angle shot that shows the candidate in a full body shot, especially when the camera moves away from them, the viewers become distanced from the contender.

For example, GOP Wisconsin governor Scott Walker went from being a front-runner receiving fair and balanced visual coverage during the Fox News debate to having nearly three-quarters of his CNN debate camera shots alongside other Republican hopefuls, illustrating his precipitous drop. On the other hand, both front-runners Trump and Clinton were by far seen proportionally less often in these types of shots.

Group shot


Donald Trump refuses to pledge loyalty to the future GOP nominee, sight unseen. (Source: FOX News prime time presidential debate August 6, 2015)


Audience involvement

While relatively rare across all four primary debates studied, audience response through laughter, applause, and booing and the camera shots capturing the candidate-audience connection can influence perceptions. Furthermore, the “worms” indicating support for one candidate over another during debates through continuous response measurement “dial testing” and Twitter, influences not just a viewer’s perception of a candidate, but also willingness to vote for them.



Sometimes the media bias concerning political coverage is in the eyes of the beholder; but much of the time it is right in front of our eyes, almost too obvious to be noticed. While we focus on the stories told on television, we forget to focus on the images used to tell them. Because seeing is believing, production choices can subtly bias viewers as to whom the most viable candidate is. Democracy is best served by those camera shots that place both candidates side-by-side in split-screen shots focusing on their head-and-shoulders as they present their case and nonverbally react to each other and the moderator. In other words, to make up our minds independent of media bias, going to the source, C-SPAN, is perhaps best.

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