Political Immersion: 2016 Presidential Party Nominations

Immersion identifies candidate strengths and weaknesses

The Problem

Many words can be used to describe the 2016 campaign for President of the United States. Predictable is not one of them. Utilizing traditional measurement tools, the world observed one of the greatest failures in predicting winners in both party nominations, and the presidential race itself.

Usually both Democrat and Republican races are settled by March. Not this time. The entry and very strong showing by Donald Trump on the GOP side had political pundits shaking their heads. So too had the rise of outsider Bernie Sanders in a race that pundits said was all but decided a year ago.  In one of our earlier tests of our Immersion platform, we examined immersion during the presidential nominations for both parties. Who was most persuasive? Did either candidate resonate with voters, and if so, why? For political candidates, persuasion in the debate translates into votes and donations.  

Study 1: Trump’s Trump Card


What was Trump doing to sustain high levels of support for so long?  Especially after his many public gaffes, why did Trump do better than the polls led on?  We recruited Republicans planning to vote in the California primary while they watched the January 14, 2016 and January 28, 2016 debates live.  These two debates were telling because Trump appeared in the January 14 event but sat out the January 28 debate. Participants in both debates were Republican voters in Southern California (ages 19-67). A different group of voters were measured for each debate.  

Study 1 Conclusion

Our neurologic analysis of the January 14 and 28, 2016 GOP debates showed that Trump forced candidates to play his game: to seek attention rather than make a positive emotional connection with voters.  When Trump was out of the debate, the candidates all made better emotional connections to viewers. We now know that the attention-getting strategy of Trump trumped all other candidates, which did not allow opponents like Cruz or Rubio to connect to voters.


January 14 Results

The median Immersion Quotient (inQ) for all candidates during the debate was 5.42.  Neurologically, Trump won the debate with an inQ of 6.40, followed closely by Rubio (5.96) and Kasich (5.59).  Figure 1 shows the average inQ for each candidate. Trump engaged voters 7% more than Rubio and 13% more than Kasich; Trump was 32% more engaging than Christie.

So why was Trump so immersive for voters?  We analyzed the components of inQ and found that, as seen in Figure 2, the top performer —Trump— had unbalanced attention and emotional resonance during the debate. He had the highest attention scores but produced low emotional resonance in voters.  Kasich balanced emotions and attention nearly equally, while the rest of the pack, other than Rubio and Carson, struggled to keep viewers’ attention.

Our research has shown that a message needs both attention and an emotional response to produce action after communication.  Trump was effective at capturing attention, providing little room for other candidates to emotionally connect. They were never going to gain the attentional pull provided by now President Trump.

January 28 Results

Without Trump on the stage, the entire debate felt different to viewers and inQ data reflected this. Rubio won the over California voters with an inQ of 7.45, greatly outperforming himself, and with Rand Paul and Ben Carson on his heels. When Trump was absent, the candidates did a better job getting viewers to care about them and their message. As Fig 4 shows, Kasich, Cruz, and Bush resonated emotionally with viewers.  This finding helps provide an insight into why Cruz would win the Iowa GOP caucus the next day and be the final hold out in the primary race.

Why was Bernie resonating more with voters during the debate?  We analyzed the components of our Immersion Quotient and found that Bernie generated twice as much emotional resonance with viewers than did Hillary (Fig 6).  People paid more attention to Hillary but appeared to be less emotionally involved with her statements. Our research has shown that a message needs both attention and an emotional response to produce action after communication.  While Hillary was good at capturing attention, her message was not capturing voters’ hearts.

Study 2: The Problem with Hillary


Why did 1 in 10 Bernie supporters vote for Trump? Although there may be several reasons, our Democratic debate study provides insight to this mystery. Southern California Democratic voters (ages 19-35) were asked to view closing statements during the March 10 debate from the final two Democratic candidates: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Study 2 Conclusions

Though Hillary was clearly competent and experienced, she lacked warmth and failed to generate an emotional connection with voters. Our recommendation as the race was still going was for Hillary to focus on generating an emotional connection with voters.  Her speaking style during a debate appeared off-putting, even to Democratic voters. She could have switched to more intimate events such as town hall meetings and changed the types of ads she aired to be more emotionally compelling. We predicted that Bernie supporters might not support Hillary, no matter who was on the other side of the ticket. As it turns out, fewer than 80% of Sanders primary voters turned out to vote for Clinton as well.


Figure 1 shows the average inQ scores for both candidates.  Neurologically, Sanders won the debate with an inQ of 5.30 while Hillary had an inQ of 4.73. This means that Bernie engaged viewers 11% more than Hillary.

We isolated parts of the debate to see how voters perceive Bernie’s and Hillary’s styles.  Both candidates scored in the 75th percentile on emotional resonance with voters when they discussed issues they cared about (Bernie: healthcare is a right versus Hillary: we will stop terrorism).  But, the closing statements for this debate show Hillary had a substantial weakness. During the closing statements Bernie’s inQ was a solid 5.40 while Hillary has a terrible 0.47. Fully 70% of Bernie’s inQ was due to emotional resonance, while Hillary had a ZERO for emotional resonance.

So What?

Abundant research has shown that we do not know our own preferences. yet, the traditional approach to analyzing political attitudes asks voters to provide subjective responses while watching political informaiton. No one really knows what these responses mena (though the pundits will spin tlaes about which politican won a debate and why). Neuroscience removes the brain’s “interpreter” that tries but fails to accurately report uncounscious feeling states and goes straight to the source of persuasion and preferences. Here we show how our Immersion Quotient foreshadowed many of the strengths and weaknesses of 2016 primary candidates. Since our data can be seen in real time, political campaigns can easily pivot their message in real time as well.

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