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Presidential Debates: Does Tone Trump Substance?

At the end of the day, most of us vote from our gut. We are skeptical, prone to seduction or aversion, sometimes fickle, sometimes loyal. We know, if not with our head, then with our heart, a leader when we see one, or hear one.
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This article was co-authored with Kelly Fitzharris Coody, editor of Sick Lit Magazine

Presidential primaries as reality TV could be a mirror reflecting our political interests, informing choice of our next leader, while reinforcing demagoguery for some, appealing to our lowest common denominator. Didn't primaries used to be more dignified and more informative, if not less entertaining? Let's compare the "victory speeches" of both the Republican and Democratic candidates at the Iowa Caucus aired this Tuesday evening to 1960s famously first­-ever­ televised presidential primaries debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy Jr.: an exchange that changed the face of politics and shaped it into what we know and see it as today.

One way to compare the candidate's statements is to use voice analytics software that uses neuropsychology research to reveal emotional content of speech -- not the words themselves, but the tone.

Tone has become a hot-button issue, ranging from political correctness, restrained politeness blamed for all that is horrible, including mass shootings, to "telling it like it is," in your face provocation, that some believe will cure all ills.

The candidate's emotional messages, intentional tone or not, may surprise you.

CRUZ (Iowa, 28 percent): Pompous. Flirting, thrill­ seeking. Effective but controlled interpersonal communications. Warm, yet restrained feelings. Conflict between enthusiasm and pragmatism. Sense of mission, ideological belief. Warm feelings, enthusiasm, faith and controlled excitement.

TRUMP (Iowa, 24 percent): Warm feelings, enthusiasm, faith. Enthusiasm from self­ conviction. Admiration. Talkativeness. Emotions under strict control. Love, happiness, spiritual uplift. Controlled communicator. Use of rich imagination, hope, anticipation.

RUBIO (Iowa, 23 percent): Assertive and tough; high self­ confidence. Flirtation, goal­ oriented communication. Manipulation. Pompous and argumentative. Controlled excitement. Possessiveness. Conflict between desires and norms. Action to control/dominate.

And the Democrats:

CLINTON (Iowa, 49.9 percent): Passion/Creative mood. Emotional and tense; internal conviction; demanding. Stubborn, possibly childish; striving for love and belonging. Extroverted leadership; optimism, joy and warmth. Conflict between forcefulness and self ­restraint; possibly impersonation (acting).

SANDERS (Iowa, 49.6 percent): Great leadership, sense of action and need to lead. Very charismatic communication, focused, practical, strong and ambitious. Optimism, vision, imagination, devoutness, ideology, charisma. Authoritative, stubbornness, self ­confidence; Strong
drive. Leadership and control based on internal conviction.

How does the JFK/Nixon debate compare?

While at times during Nixon's opening remarks, voice analytics revealed emotions such as happiness, elation and sense of mission, there's more, especially during the debate.

NIXON: Cold. Rational. Level­ headed, conservative. Attempt to gain favor, enthusiasm and passion. Missionary leadership, stubbornness. Authoritative, pompous, over­ excitement.

Sound familiar?

JFK's tone wasn't all warmth and sunshine--rather, a lot of internal conflict showed on his side, at all times during the debate. It was consistent from his opening statement through the intense debate portions.

JFK: Emotional control. Pedantic and maintaining of boundaries. Conflict between desires and actual behavior. Detail oriented. Attempt to gain favor, enthusiasm and passion. Talkativeness, charisma, extroversion, preaching vision, blabbering. Emotions under strict control, practical and reserved communication.

At the end of the day, most of us vote from our gut. We are skeptical, prone to seduction or aversion, sometimes fickle, sometimes loyal. We know, if not with our head, then with our heart, a leader when we see one, or hear one. This is true today or over fifty years ago, when
JFK and Nixon may have been challenged more on policy, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

A version of this article was published at The Congress Blog of The Hill.

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