The Science of Emotion: How America Experiences Clinton & Trump – Part I

For decades psychologists have been evaluating emotions in systematic ways. FocusVision thought it would be fascinating to leverage their findings, and lead a study that employs a systematic approach in understanding how people are feeling “emotionally” about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

The History Behind Studying Emotions

Emotions have been studied scientifically for years, dating back to Charles Darwin. He argued that emotional expressions evolved through natural selection, thus are universally recognizable in humans, regardless of culture or language. This led the way for further research in the scientific study of emotions and its classification.

Pioneered by psychologist Paul Ekman, emotional classification is the process of systematically distinguishing emotions from one another. As a continuation of Darwin’s work, Ekman led a series of studies that included participants from both modern societies, and tribal societies where facial expressions could not be learned through modern-day channels such as the media. His research guided him to six emotions that are universally recognizable across cultures: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise.

While largely agreeing with Ekman’s findings, another pioneer in the field, Robert Plutchik coined an emotion classification model of his own, which included all six of Ekman’s basic emotions accompanied by two additional emotions: anticipation and trust.

Building the Study on America’s Emotions About its 2016 Presidential Candidates

Plutchik’s model was used as the foundation of this study, and allowed us to take a systematic approach in measuring how people felt emotionally about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. We sought to identify not only which of the basic emotions people were feeling, but also the intensity in which those emotions were being experienced. Additionally, we wanted to understand how positive or negative people felt about each candidate and to understand why people were feeling those specific emotions.

Overall Emotional Trends by Total Population

emotional-valence-2We began by exploring overall trends on a total population level. On average, people were feeling emotionally negative about both candidates, but felt more negative about Trump than Clinton. Of respondents surveyed, 51% percent felt emotionally negative about Clinton, and 68% feel emotionally negative about Trump.

Furthermore, Trump evoked more surprise than Clinton. It isn’t surprising that Trump is surprising. But what would be surprising is a candidate making it to the White House with more than two-thirds of the population having negative emotions toward them.

Examining Emotions Within Political Parties

Next, we looked at how people felt about the candidates based on their political beliefs. As one would expect, Democrats felt more positive about Clinton, and Republicans felt more positive about Trump. Independent voters felt equally negative about both candidates — with 64% holding emotionally negative views of Clinton and Trump respectively.

emotional-valenceWhen contrasting how Democrats and Republicans felt emotionally about their own party’s nominee, Democrats felt more positive about Clinton than Republicans felt positive about Trump. Accordingly, 71% of Democrats held a positive view of Clinton with only 60% of Republicans holding a positive view of Trump.

Given that Democrats felt more positive emotionally about their party’s candidate suggests there currently may be more polarization within the Republican Party than within the Democratic Party. An interesting takeaway here is that a majority of Republicans still felt positive emotionally about Trump, even after a large number of prominent Republicans have spoken out against him.

Comparing Candidates Emotions Between Ethnicities

Next, we investigated how people of various races and ethnicities felt emotionally about the candidates. People of all ethnicities felt negative emotionally about Trump. In contrast, with the exception of whites, people of all ethnicities felt positive emotionally about Clinton. While both candidates were unpopular amongst whites, Trump was slightly more disliked within this ethnic group than Clinton. Of all races, Clinton was viewed most positively amongst African Americans.


There were no major differences when observing the data across all other individual demographic groups such as gender, age, etc., as independent variables. The narrative remained consistent with the findings reported on a population level: people felt emotionally negative about both candidates; more so about Trump than Clinton. And, as stated earlier, Trump consistently evoked more surprise than Clinton.

In Part II of this blog series, we will discuss why people are feeling the way they do about Clinton and Trump. The origins driving people’s emotions are fascinating, so stay tuned. Interested in taking the survey?

Register for the upcoming Research Rendezvous event in New York City on October 20 for a deeper dive into the 2016 Election study.

About the Author

Ryan Baum is a Senior Research Strategist for FocusVision. He is well-versed across industries, and has the proven ability to translate complex research results into compelling and actionable insights. His research experience includes concept-testing, advertising, branding, packaging, pricing, segmentation and messaging development. He also brings deep experience in the incorporation of a variety of methodologies used in cognitive neuroscience and psychology to better understand the subconscious preferences and behaviors of consumers.

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