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Why Are Presidential Debates Like NASCAR Races?

A whole new way, literally, to look at presidential debates.

By U.S. Air Force photo by Larry McTighe - United States Air Force, Public Domain
Source: By U.S. Air Force photo by Larry McTighe - United States Air Force, Public Domain

I tried to watch the Daytona 500 last weekend. It’s a big deal to a lot of people. Evidently it’s the Super Bowl of NASCAR racing, which is second only to the National Football League (Go Cowboys!) in TV ratings among professional sports organizations. I get the fascination with the cool technology they use in race cars, but I’ve yet to gain an appreciation for cars going around in circles over and over and over…

And, quite frankly, I’d been starting to feel the same way about the recent deluge of presidential debates. By my count there have been 16 debates to this point in the 2016 presidential election season—eight since the beginning of the year, which only started eight weeks ago! I get the fascination with selecting the most powerful person in the world, but there are just so many questions that can be asked, and I’m starting to feel like we’re hearing the same answers to the same questions over and over and over…


But then I read some neat research by political communication scholars Erik Bucy and Harrison Gong that gave me a whole new way—literally—to look at presidential debates. Drs. Bucy and Gong are interested in how non-verbal behavior affects reactions to and evaluations of political candidates. And their article reminded me that non-verbal behavior has a huge effect on how we view our political leaders, sometimes an even greater effect than their policy positions—the information we ideally hope drives our political choices.

Texas Tech University
Source: Texas Tech University

The objective of the article, “When Style Obscures Substance” (you can see where this is going), is to evaluate how people respond when presidential candidates display inappropriate facial reactions to their opponents’ attacks. In other words, how do people feel when Candidate Smith attacks Candidate Jones and Jones simply smiles or looks away instead of scowling, frowning, or somehow aggressively reacting?


To figure this out, they took several clips from the 2012 presidential debates between candidates President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney in which the candidates appeared side by side on a split TV screen. They identified an appropriate and inappropriate facial reaction by each candidate to something said by his opponent during the debates; for example, Obama smiling and looking down when Romney accuses him of misleading people about a tax break (inappropriate response by Obama) and Romney smiling and looking toward Obama when the president talks about ending the war in Iraq (appropriate response by Romney).

CSPAN, non-commercial use by permission
Source: CSPAN, non-commercial use by permission

Then they had student participants watch and react to the clips. First, they used eye tracking to see where and how long their subjects looked during the clips (talk about cool technology). They found the participants looked much more closely (24%) and for a longer time (29% or 5 seconds) at the candidate when his facial response was inappropriate.

Next, Bucy and Gong had the participants rate the candidates in terms of honesty, trustworthiness, being in control, credibility, and capability. They discovered that the participants rated the candidates lower on these traits after an inappropriate facial expression.

Finally, and this is even more fascinating, they asked the participants to recall from memory what was said by the opponent that caused the appropriate or inappropriate facial reaction. They learned that their participants much less accurately recalled the verbal message when the facial reaction was inappropriate. In other words, the non-verbal behavior of the person being attacked attracted more attention than and distracted from the processing of the verbal message of the attacker.


The researchers explained these effects in terms of expectancy violations theory. In other words, the inappropriate facial reactions ran contrary to how the participants expected a candidate to react when attacked. So the participants took longer to mentally process the inappropriate reactions, which caused them to spend more time looking at the face displaying the inappropriate reaction (the eye tracking results) instead of listening to and processing what was said (the memory-recall results). Finally, the inappropriate facial reactions were, well, inappropriate according to expectations, which led the participants to evaluate the candidates less favorably.

This study is consistent with other research showing that we get a lot of information from non-verbal behavior (some of this research suggests we get most of our information from non-verbal displays when communicating with another person), and it indicates this phenomenon from interpersonal communication also applies to the non-verbal behavior of political candidates participating in some of our most important and widely watched political events.


Thank you for your cool research. Now I have a reason to watch something over and over and over…the debates in the race for the White House.

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For more information: Gong, Z.H., & Bucy, E.P. (2016). When style obscures substance: Visual attention to display appropriateness in the 2012 presidential debates. Communication Monographs.

In addition to writing the "Caveman Politics" blog for Psychology Today, Gregg is the Executive Director of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University. You can find more information on Gregg at

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