Which Spin on the Debate Was Better?

By Aaron Reid
September 30, 2020

Who won the framing of the debate? As we watched the reactions to the first Presidential debate yesterday morning, we wondered how the framing of the debate by networks would impact the minds of voters trying to process the event from the previous night.

With an assist from RAPID Subtext automated ad-testing, we were able to produce scientific evidence of the impact of debate framing choices made by major networks, in less than 24 hours. We exposed a sample of over 1,200 US participants to 2 minutes of debate recap video from CNN and Fox News that were framing up the results for viewers/readers on Wednesday morning after the debate. In a simple pre/post scientific design, we measured attitudes toward each candidate before and after exposure to the 2 minute news clip. Gut level change in attitudes toward candidates are causal changes due to exposure to the framed news video. 

The results are fascinating. Does the frame placed on the same event, produce different attitudes toward the candidates. Yes. Perhaps not surprisingly, the CNN clip provides a lift for Joe Biden on key Presidential attributes in this race, including caring and honest. Similarly, the Fox News clip provides a significant lift for President Trump on several key attributes.

The Fox News clip focuses in on one key moment in the debate, and with an assist from the framing of the question by Chris Wallace, Trump is set up well to deliver on one of his most important talking points: the economy.  With so much focus on honesty, the Fox News choice of frame delivers a significant gift to Trump on that specific attribute..

The emotional reactions from the audience are telling. The moment where Trump begins reciting statistics of jobs being created, and emphasizing that Biden would “shut down the economy again”, we see a significant rise in positive emotion being expressed – especially among those who feel more positive about Trump after watching the clip.

However, even though the Fox News clip reinforces positive associations of Trump with strong and leader, exposure to the clip does not increase gut level reactions of “my vote” with Trump. In fact, even though it may have been the best focus for the clip, the recap of the debate, even by Fox News, benefits “my vote” associations with Joe Biden.

Implicit Associations with Trump Before and After watching CNN recap of 1st Debate.

Gut Reaction of “My Vote” after watching recap of 1st Debate by CNN.

Implicit Associations with Biden Before and After watching Fox News recap of 1st Debate.

The 2 minute CNN clip strings together numerous scenes from the debate and in most of the scenes Biden is looking down or aghast or trying to break into the conversation while President Trump is interrupting and slinging insults. Exposure to this CNN clip does not increase likelihood to vote for Biden, however, it does draw pause in voters thinking about whether they would cast their vote for Donald Trump.

The moment-by-moment analysis of the facial reactions to the CNN clip reveal an electorate that is tired of dishonesty. When Biden points to his chest and says “Right now, I am the Democratic Party” there is a dramatic rise in positive emotion, especially among those more likely to vote for Biden after watching the CNN clip. Importantly for the Biden campaign, this rise in positive emotion expressed on the faces of viewers more likely to vote for Biden after watching the clip, is consistently triggered by Biden calling out dishonesty by Trump.

  1. “That is simply a lie.” Rise in positive emotion.
  2. “I’m not here to call out his lies, everybody knows he’s a liar”. Rise.
  3. “None of that is true.” Rise. 
  4. “That is simply not true.” Rise. 
Key insights from these studies obviously include the identification of the talking points, and positioning that will help both candidates frame and spin the debate in their favor. These insights can help near term in framing debate perceptions, and also guide future market messages for greatest impact.

But for me, forever a scientist, perhaps the greater contribution of this work is raising awareness that automated behavioral science is real, alive and working on any researcher’s desktop. We don’t have to rely on the opinion of a few people to decide whether a video clip will be good for a candidate or a brand – we now have access to automated scientific evidence of the impact of our message framing. 

We had our scientific evidence on these clips in 3 hours. Imagine how you could optimize your messaging if you had that kind of evidence at your fingertips in hours.

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Aaron Reid


Founder & CEO, Sentient Decision Science, Inc.



For more information about Sentient Decision Science and our groundbreaking research please contact us.