Dual Screening During Presidential Debates: Political Nonverbals and the Volume and Valence of Online Expression

Dhavan V. Shah, Alex Hanna, Erik P. Bucy, David S. Lassen, Jack Van Thomme, Kristen Bialik, Jung Hwan Yang, Jon C.W. Pevehouse

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The impact of presidential debates on candidate evaluations remains an open topic. Research has long sought to identify the factors that matter most in citizens’ responses to debate content, including what candidates say, how they say it, and the manner in which they appear. This study uses detailed codings of the first and third 2012 presidential debates to evaluate the impact of candidates’ verbal and nonverbal behaviors on viewers’ “second screen” response—their use of computers, tablets, and mobile devices to express their reactions to the viewing experience. To examine the relationship between candidates’ on-screen behaviors and the social media response, we conduct generalized least squares regression (Prais–Winstein estimation) relating two data sources: (a) a shot-by-shot content analysis coded for rhetorical/functional, tonal, and visual elements of both candidates’ behavior during the debates, and (b) corresponding real-time measures of the volume and valence of online expression about the candidates on Twitter. We find that the nonverbal communication behaviors of candidates—their facial expressions, physical gestures, and blink rate—are consistent, robust, and significant predictors of the volume and valence of public expression during debates, rivaling the power of memes generated by candidates and contributing more than rhetorical strategies and speech tone.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1816-1843
Number of pages28
JournalAmerican Behavioral Scientist
Issue number14
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Twitter
  • blink rate
  • computational communication science
  • facial expressions
  • gestures
  • machine learning
  • meme
  • political performance
  • sentiment analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Cultural Studies
  • Education
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Social Sciences(all)


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