Toggle menu M e n u

You are here

Political persuasion

By Alex Piazza

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

They have dominated the news cycle over the last several months, and for good reason.

Trump and Clinton are the leading candidates vying for the nation’s most powerful position.

But the news cycle is not always positive. Both Republicans and Democrats have launched their share of attacks in hopes of swaying voters on November 8.

So how do people respond to negative news? And how do voters select a candidate when no one they like is on the ballot?

University of Michigan researchers are addressing these types of important issues that could impact the race for the Oval Office.


What have you read, heard or seen lately about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton?

That is the question being posed to hundreds of randomly selected Americans every night until November 8. The survey is part of a greater Gallup poll to gauge voter sentiment in the weeks leading up to the presidential election.

In July, Gallup began calling 500 different people every night to ask what they remember about the two leading candidates through news outlets, social media or casual conversation.

Each phone interview is transcribed and then sent to a team of researchers from Gallup, the University of Michigan and Georgetown University. Through data analysis, researchers then can identify words Americans most commonly use to describe what they recently heard about Trump and Clinton.

The survey is now in its fifteenth week, and for many of those weeks, Americans have consistently connected Clinton with the term “email.” For Trump, key terms vary on a weekly, or even nightly basis—from “immigration” to “women” to “tax.”

Stuart Soroka

“For many weeks, email became a bigger and bigger portion of what people remembered about Clinton,” said Stuart Soroka, Michael W. Traugott Collegiate Professor of Communication Studies and Political Science at U-M. “The news content on the Trump side has been much more diverse. The real question then becomes, what’s worse: an ongoing string of negative events, or one negative theme that sticks with you for the whole campaign?”

Soroka focuses a majority of his research on political communication and how negative news coverage influences voters.

“Do we remember the negative information better than we remember the positive information?,” asks Soroka. “So far, based on the Gallup poll, people are more prone to recall negative information about the candidates. But most of this election has focused on bad news.”

So how do people respond to negative news? Soroka recruited men and women to watch a news program in a quiet room. Sensors were placed on their hand, face and around their torso to capture changes in heart rate and skin temperature.

The goal was to measure how people react to positive and negative news, and also whether there was a disparity between how men and women react.

“By capturing fluctuations in their skin temperature and heart rate, we can assess the degree to which participants are activated or excited about something they see on the news,” said Soroka, who also has ties to the U-M Center for Political Studies.

The results confirm past research that suggests people are more activated by and attentive to negative news content. This is in the context of a regular news program, however—whether a long, deeply negative campaign makes people more or less interested in politics is unclear.

Top 200 words in responses about the candidate, with limited synonym recoding, July 11 to October 10, 2016. Data are from the Gallup, Michigan, Georgetown Working Group: Frank Newport, Lisa Singh, Stuart Soroka, Michael Traugott and Andrew Dugan. Updated data are available at and The red word cloud represents Donald Trump and the blue word cloud represents Hillary Clinton.

Rejection or choice

“Can this election be over already? I am so fed up with these candidates!”

You more than likely have seen comments like the one above appear on social media over the last couple months. And this sentiment will continue in the weeks ahead, as favorability ratings for Trump and Clinton waver.

So how do voters select a candidate when no one they like is on the ballot? Do they adhere to party lines, flip a coin or avoid the polls altogether?

U-M behavioral scientists Aradhna Krishna and Tatiana Sokolova sought to find out.

They led an online study in April in which they showed people Trump and Clinton as the only two candidates for president. Participants who found at least one of the candidates attractive were more likely to select by choice, whereas those who disliked both Trump and Clinton were more prone to select by rejection.

“We learned that in situations where all of the choices are bad, people tend to vote by rejecting the choices they didn’t like, rather than by affirmatively choosing the one they disliked least,” said Krishna, Dwight F. Benton Professor of Marketing. “Imagine there are two undesirable candidates named Tilly and Ron. Given this ‘two bad choices’ option, voters will be more likely to select Tilly because they reject Ron, rather than select Tilly proactively.”

Aradhna Krishna                                     Tatiana Sokolova

That’s because people who vote using rejection rather than choice are more deliberate, according to nine separate studies led by Krishna and Sokolova.

Their research, which recently was featured in publications like The Washington Post, The Guardian, Quartz and Salon, shows people who vote using rejection are less likely to be swayed by unimportant information and they often pay less attention to rumors. In other words, people who vote using rejection pay more attention to all information they have, both good and bad, research shows.

“The study results indicate that wild in-your-face claims made by candidates will get less weight if people use rejection strategies to vote,” said Sokolova, a postdoctoral researcher at U-M’s Ross School of Business.


Do you want to learn more about research at U-M? Subscribe to Michigan Research