The Use and Consequences of Emotions in Politics


Kathleen Searles, Louisiana State University &  Travis N. Ridout, Washington State University

February 2017 – Emotional appeals are a central part of politics in America, and examples of their use in political campaigns are many.  The classic “Daisy Girl” ad of 1964 used images of a nuclear explosion to try to raise voters’ anxiety so that they would show up to the polls and vote for Lyndon Johnson.  The American flags that appear on stages at campaign rallies (and on lapel pins) are designed to associate specific candidates with the emotion of pride. At the same time, anger over “Washington insiders” and the “Washington establishment” pervades many political speeches.  Here we review the literature on the effects of emotions on people’s participation in politics, their opinions on political matters and the choices they make at the ballot box.  We also review the small but growing literature on the use of emotions in political campaigns, that is, how political actors try to deploy emotions strategically to achieve their desired electoral ends (e.g., Ridout and Searles 2011; Cho 2013; Brader 2006).  Finally, we examine the use of emotional appeals in advertising by Clinton and Trump during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

Political Emotions Introduced

While there is little doubt campaigns use emotional appeals strategically, it is not always clear whether such strategies are informed by professional norms or by research on the effects of emotions (Schnur 2007).  Regardless, a rich literature echoes what ad executives and campaign professionals seem to know: emotions are essential to understanding political attitudes and behaviors (Zajonc 1980).

The empirical study of emotions in psychology spans several decades (Adorno et al. 1950; Abelson 1963; Zajonc 1982; Damasio 1994; Bargh and Chartrand 1999; Bechara and Damasio 2005), though philosophers have long  debated the merits of human passions (Hume 1739; Madison 1961; Marcus 2000). What is relatively new is the burgeoning interest in the study of emotions in political science (Marcus et al. 2000; Valentino et al. 2011; Albertson and Gadarian 2015; Zeitzoff 2016).

While emotion was traditionally seen as a nuisance to good governance (Edelman 1985; Kuklinski et al. 1991), more recent work suggests emotion is central to political participation (Valentino et al. 2007), public opinion (Brader 2006), processing of information (Lodge and Taber 2005), political discussion (Cho 2013), political tolerance (Small et al. 2006), and policy attitudes (Albertson and Gadarian 2015).   Before discussing the effects of the most popular emotional appeals in advertising (Brader 2006) – anger, fear/anxiety, and enthusiasm/hope – we briefly discuss the mechanics behind emotional influence.

What Are Emotions?

The 2016 US presidential campaign was often characterized by journalists and pundits as irrational and wrought with emotions like anger and fear.  Such depictions fail to consider emotions as evolutionary adaptations designed to solve recurrent problems when the costs of a mistake would be high (Frijda 1986; Tooby and Cosmides 2008; Izard 2009).  Work in this vein considers emotions to be triggered by appraisals, providing vital information to processing systems such as attention and perception (Clore et al. 2001).  This research tradition treats emotion as a moderator/mediator (Ottati and Isbell 1996), an outcome variable (Lerner and Keltner 2000) and a predictor (Marcus and MacKuen 1993).  Building on these approaches, political psychology is often interested in how emotions shape the evaluation of socio-political objects and thereby elicit a response (Lodge and Taber 2005).

For example, Druckman and McDermott (2008) find that when people are presented with a hypothetical disease outbreak framed (or presented) to either emphasize gains (e.g., saving lives) or losses (e.g., death), emotions can temper or amplify the effects of that frame on risky choices.  When measured as an outcome, anger and fear have been found to increase following group-based appraisals (Mackie et al. 2000).  While used as a predictor, Ryan (2012) found anger to increase the likelihood that a person would seek additional information online.

The psychological underpinnings of political science research on emotions can be further characterized in several ways.  First, many political psychologists assume emotions to be automatic and nearly impossible to disentangle from cognition (Huddy et al. 2007; Winkielman and Cacioppo 2001; Murphy and Zajonc 1993).  Drawing on findings from neuroscience (Adolphs and Damasio 2000, 2001), Lodge and Taber (2005) demonstrate the automaticity of emotional response in their work on affective contagion.

Second, they demonstrate that all political objects are to some extent emotional (Lodge and Taber 2005; Abelson et al. 1982; Fazio et al. 1986).  Originating in work on hot cognition (Abelson 1963), politicians and other objects become emotion-laden upon repeated processing of a stimulus, during which time affective responses occur first (Zajonc 1980), and then cascade across subsequent higher-order processing (Lodge et al. 1989).  Third, emotions can be described in terms of valence (Osgood et al.1957), which is typical of traditional campaign advertising models (Kern 1989), in terms of arousal (Russell 1980), and as discrete states (Frijda 1986; Lazarus 1991). The latter approach is most often associated with the theoretical framework of cognitive appraisal theory (Roseman 1984).  As we focus on the effects of discrete emotions, it is worthwhile to explain this framework further.

More specifically, in a political context, we can think of emotion as a result of the process by which individuals appraise the significance of a political situation and act accordingly (Smith and Ellsworth 1985).   For example, following an electoral outcome (e.g. a Trump victory) that an individual appraises as surprising, people may feel anxiety and, consequently, engage in behaviors designed to cope with such feelings, like watching more political news.  To summarize, one approach to understanding emotions in political psychology is as appraisal-caused solutions to fundamental life tasks that orchestrate synchronized bodily responses to challenges while interacting in a variety of ways with cognition. We will be exploring in particular how the appraisals involved in specific emotions (e.g. anger, fear, etc.) can help us understand the roles played by emotions in politics.

Appraisal Profiles of Political Emotions

Broadly, appraisal theorists claim that objects are appraised in terms of their likelihood to facilitate or inhibit an individual’s goals, triggering an emotional response and action tendency (Frijda et al. 1989; Roseman et al. 1990).  Different theories identify different dimensions of appraisal. A popular proposal distinguishes six dimensions: certainty, pleasantness, attention, control, effort, and responsibility (Ellsworth and Scherer 2003; Ellsworth 1991).  In what follows, we will consider the political role of the three emotions found to occur most frequently in American campaign messaging (Brader and Corrigan 2006): anger, fear/anxiety, and hope/enthusiasm.


Anger is a response to an object that is inhibiting or frustrating a relevant goal (Carver 2004), particularly when the challenger is identifiable and perceived to be unjust (Mikula et al. 1998).  According to most appraisal theorists, anger differs from fear in that the former, unlike the latter, is elicited when the individual perceives the situation to be under control (Tiedens and Linton 2001).  Anger is also more often characterized by certainty about potential outcomes and feelings of betrayal.  The experience of anger is also related to approach behaviors (Mackie et al. 2000), which are typified by risk-seeking and a higher tolerance for risk (Lerner and Keltner 2001; Huddy et al. 2007).  Moreover, anger often includes haphazard processing, which increases the likelihood people will use cognitive shortcuts and stereotypes in their evaluations (Lerner et al. 1998). Anger has been linked to aggression (Eisenberg 2000), blaming (Quigley and Tedeschi 1996) and antisocial behaviors (Spector 1997).

Perhaps most importantly, anger is thought to affect the content of cognition.  Anger drives attitudes towards punitive policies and punishment (Lerner et al. 1998; Lazarus 1991), a potentially powerful response in the political arena.  These downstream effects explain, in part, why inducing anger increases the likelihood an individual will blame an agent rather than situational characteristics (Keltner et al. 1993) and why angry individuals are less likely to behave altruistically (Zeitzoff 2016).  Such blame-seeking tendencies (Huddy et al. 2007) diminish risk associated with political actions such as war, increasing individuals’ support for military action (Lerner et al. 2003).  Indeed, Small and colleagues (2006) found that following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, angry individuals were more likely to blame others than sad individuals.

Angry individuals are also more likely to support risky policies (Lerner et al. 2003; Nabi et al. 2003).  This may explain why anger appeals are used in political rhetoric more frequently following a terrorist attack (Castella et al. 2009), an effective strategy given that anger also makes individuals more optimistic about the future (Lerner and Tiedens 2006).  In an interesting reversal, participants who are informed they’ll be held accountable for angry behaviors are less likely to engage in biased processing (Bodenhausen et al. 1994).

While one of the more difficult emotions to study, anger is also one of the most powerful political emotions (Searles and Mattes 2015). Work in political science often focuses on how anger may influence political behaviors and attitudes.  Anger predicts presidential approval ratings, for example, with angry citizens reporting more disapproving attitudes towards President Reagan (Conover and Feldman 1986).  Anger also increases personal efficacy (Weber 2007) and mobilizes individuals to participate in campaigns (Valentino et al. 2011).  In a field experiment in Zimbabwe, Young (2015) found that anger appeals increased the likelihood an individual would engage in pro-opposition speech.  Zeitzoff (2013) adds additional nuance to these findings.

In an interesting economic game fielded in areas of Israel subject to varying levels of violence, he induced anger and then gave subjects the opportunity to “pay to punish” their partners for actions in a previous round.  He found a conditional effect of anger, with participants in areas with high levels of violence less likely to pay to punish and participants in areas with low levels of violence more likely to pay to punish.  He reasons that retribution is not linearly related to exposure to violence and as a result, people who endure long and intense durations of violence may be more willing to make accommodations.

Some work finds that anger depresses information-seeking behaviors (Valentino et al. 2008) while also decreasing attention to the political environment (MacKuen et al. 2010).  Other research finds that the medium and motivation matter.  Angry citizens will look for partisan or ideological information in a web search on candidates, and they are more likely to use this information rather than policy information to make vote choices (Parker and Isbell 2010).  The same angry citizens are also more likely to consume pro-attitudinal news, while decreasing their consumption of counter-attitudinal news (Song 2016).  This type of biased search also makes angry citizens less likely to correctly recall the issue stances of their preferred candidate (Redlawsk and Lau 2006).

In a related vein, MacKuen and colleagues (2010) find that anger triggers a partisan style of citizenship, leading individuals to dig-in and defend their pre-existing attitudes.  Thus, an angry citizen is more likely to rely on political habits and is less likely to compromise.  Similarly, angry citizens are less likely to demonstrate tolerance in the wake of a crisis (Skitka et al. 2004).  This may explain why anger mediates the effects of opinions about welfare recipients on attitudes towards welfare, such that recipients who are portrayed as not actively seeking employment were likely to elicit anger and negative attitudes towards welfare in individuals exposed to such messaging (Petersen et al. 2012).  The authors argue that anger is adaptive, allowing groups to monitor the deservingness of assistance.

Taken together, the research suggests that anger is potent when utilized in campaign messaging.  Particularly, anger might be most effective when used in ads aimed at turning out loyal partisans.  Indeed, while campaign advertisements often receive scrutiny for their attempts to impugn the opponent, they are just as often geared at turning out the candidate’s base—an objective anger may be well suited for.


Fear is believed to be driven by innate mechanisms that allow humans to adapt to threatening circumstances (Gray 1987; Hebb 1949).  Although fear has often been lamented in the public sphere for its seemingly irrational properties (Lippmann 1922), it serves an adaptive purpose: it is associated with heightened awareness and a focus on threats (Eysenck 1992).  Indeed, a fear state is likely to result in the release of the hormones epinephrine and cortisol which have been found to strengthen recall (Civentinni and Redlawsk 2009).  Fear is also likely to elicit avoidance behaviors such as withdrawal (Small and Lerner 2008), risk aversion (Lerner and Keltner 2001), higher political tolerance via the affirmation of political values (Skitka et al. 2004), and even miscalculation of risk (Loewenstein et al. 2001; Lerner et al. 2003).  Specifically, Lerner and Keltner (2001) found that fearful individuals were more likely to be pessimistic and worry about common causes of death, unlike their angry counterparts.

Shedding a more positive light on the effects of fear, psychologists have found that fear drives systematic, deliberative, and in-depth thought processes (Berenbaum et al. 1995; Clore et al. 2001).  Work in political psychology finds similar results for anxiety, with anxious individuals paying increased attention to campaign information (Marcus and MacKuen 1993) and news on threatening topics (Albertson and Gadarian 2015).  It is worth noting that fear and anxiety are often used interchangeably in the literature: both are treated as a response to a threat and there is overlap in their physiological and behavioral mechanics.  Indeed, some scholars even suggest anxiety is just a form of fear we’ve adapted to handle distant, vague threats in our increasingly complex societies (Barlow 2000; also see Albertson and Gadarian 2015).

However, for the sake of clarity, traditionally anxiety is seen as related to a more generalized, unknown danger while fear is related to an immediate threat (Craig et al. 1995).  Fear is also more likely to elicit a flight-or-fight response.  As such, when talking about situations characterized by uncertainty – situations that often typify the political arena – anxiety is often the emotion elicited (Tiedens and Linton 2001; Bower 1988; Huddy et al. 2007).

Anxiety serves an important function in the political arena, guiding the public’s attention to salient issue areas.  Anxious citizens are likely to redirect their attention to a political threat and are more likely to shed their partisan habits (Marcus et al. 2000; see also Marcus 2017, this issue).  In a high information electoral context, such as a presidential race, this often means more attention is allocated to news on a preferred candidate (Redlawsk and Lau 2006).   For example, anxious Trump voters were likely motivated to seek news that suggested their candidate was winning (Marcus and MacKuen 1993; but see Ladd and Lenz 2008).  Such attention shifts may also result in increased political learning (Brader et al. 2011; but see Civentinni and Redlawsk 2009), motivating individuals to engage in deliberation (MacKuen et al. 2010).  On the other hand, Weber (2007) finds that appeals to anxiety decrease feelings of personal efficacy.

Building on this framework, Brader (2006) exposes a representative, non-college population to emotion-laden campaign advertisements during a gubernatorial race. He finds that contrary to previous work that suggests negative ads demobilize (Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1995), ads using anxiety appeals—which are often negative—motivate those with high levels of civic competence.  When exposed to attack ads, anxious individuals are also more likely to engage in political discussion with homogenous groups (Cho 2013).  In addition to ads, other political stimuli such as rhetoric (Druckman and McDermott 2008), policies (MacKuen et al. 2010) and candidates themselves (Valentino et al. 2007) can cause anxiety.

Anxiety is particularly effective in political talk as it facilitates persuasion (Brader 2006) and makes frames more influential (Druckman and McDermott 2008).  That said, anxiety may also interfere with memory (Civentinni and Redlawsk 2009) and the processing and recall of information (Huddy et al. 2007).  Moreover, while anxiety is associated with cheap participation requiring little effort, anxiety is not associated with more serious forms of political participation like volunteering or donating money (Valentino et al. 2011).

Societal threats without clear solutions, such as immigration (Albertson and Gadarian 2015), lead anxious citizens to cope in political ways.  To cope with the unpleasantness of the feelings, anxious individuals might seek more news on the subject.  Specifically, anxious citizens are likely to consume more pro-attitudinal news, but this additional consumption does not necessarily impede their consumption of news they do not agree with (Song 2016).  Similarly Parker and Isbell (2010) found that anxious individuals are more likely to look for information online regarding candidates than their angry counterparts.  These same individuals were then more likely to report that they would vote for the candidate closest to them on the issues, suggesting a normatively desirable product of anxiety.

Anxious individuals may also be more supportive of protectionist policies (Brader et al. 2008; Albertson and Gadarian 2015)  Similarly, Huddy and colleagues (2007) find that anxiety is more likely to increase the likelihood an individual supported the war in Iraq, while Merolla and Zechmeister (2009) find anxiety decreases support for democracy in the developing world.  As another means of coping, Albertson and Gadarian (2015) also find that anxiety causes individuals to place more trust in political leaders.  However, these tendencies are shaped by political predispositions such that partisans will trust their leaders and their anxious rhetoric more than out-party partisans (Albertson and Gadarian 2015).

Overall, this research points to the complexity of using emotions in political messages.  Often pundits lament the use of anxiety in political rhetoric, and embedded in this criticism is an assumption that the public responds to fear appeals by blindly supporting the sponsor.  The research suggests a much more nuanced portraiture of political fear.  For example, Albertson and Gadarian (2015) find the effects of fear are constrained inasmuch they are effective only for candidates that have previously made a case for aptitude in specific issue areas.  We can think about this in the context of the 2016 U.S. election campaign.  The Republican Party is said to “own” national security issues as these are policy areas in which the public perceives Republicans to be most adept at handling.  Thus, when Republican candidate Donald Trump aired campaign ads emphasizing national security, this research suggests appealing to anxiety in these ads was an effective strategy.  On the other hand, using anxiety as a blanket political strategy is ineffective when airing ads on issues that are not perceived as “owned” by a party.


Hope is defined by a sense of both agency and a path forward and thus is much more integrated with an evaluation of the future than other emotions (Snyder 1994; Just et al. 2007).  Individuals who perceive an outcome to be without agency and without any pathways forward  will be less likely to experience hope.  Inversely, hope offers the possibility of change from the status quo to an improved future.  This estimation of the future is tinged by uncertainty and a lack of perceived control, in contrast to enthusiasm or joy (Frijda et al. 1989).  Similar to fear, hope can be seen as functional inasmuch that it motivates people to adapt goal-directed behaviors when confronted with changing circumstances (Groopman 2004). Indeed, researchers have found hope to be associated with fear towards political opponents, and behaviors often associated with fear, like information search (Just et al. 2007).

As hope requires forecasting, in an electoral context, a hopeful voter would need to have confidence in some aspect of the candidate’s record, personality, or rhetoric (Fromm 1968).  Thus, hope is instrumental in political rhetoric, lending credence to politicians’ claims that they represent change and linking the fates of hopeful voters with politicians.  Indeed, Just and colleagues (2007) found that voters who did not feel hopeful at the outset of an election campaign were influenced by candidate appeals.  Feelings of hope regarding the in-party candidate were also accompanied by feelings of fear regarding the out-party candidate.  This transformative nature of hope can be recognized in the “hope and change” rhetoric of the Obama 2008 presidential campaign and in Ronald Reagan’s classic “Morning in America” ad from 1984.

As a bonus, feelings of hope towards a candidate have been shown to increase the consumption of news and the likelihood a participant will watch a political convention (Just et al. 2007). Indeed, scholars suggest that positive emotions such as hope are essential in political decision-making and even more important in decisions about for whom to vote (Belt et al. 2005).  However, the two positive emotions most common to politics – hope and enthusiasm – are conceptually different.  Primarily, enthusiasm is a positive emotional state preceded by a certainty appraisal, and rooted in the present as opposed to the future (like hope).  Also in contrast with hope, enthusiasm does not convey uncertainty or transformation and is less coupled with cognition and estimation of future outcomes as a result (Just et al. 2007).  Often times it is difficult to differentiate hope and enthusiasm because scholars utilize survey data that ask participants how they felt after the election, and hope is oriented to how an individual will feel.

Examining the consequences of enthusiasm, Brader (2006) found enthusiasm increased people’s reliance on partisan habits, such as always voting for the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, and decreased their attention to the campaign environment, much like anger.  Affective intelligence theory also suggests enthusiasm will cause voters to engage with partisan loyalties, digging into existing predispositions (Marcus et al. 2000).  While Brader (2006) finds that enthusiasm stimulates participation generally, another study found that individuals equipped with income and education were motivated by enthusiasm to both engage in cheap political participation (e.g. wearing a button) and costly forms of participation (e.g. donating money to a candidate) relative to people without similar resources.

Redlawsk and Lau (2007) use dynamic process tracing to demonstrate the positive effect of enthusiasm on information search. However, they find that while enthusiasm may increase the time spent on search for information, this additional effort is not rewarded with better accuracy. Enthusiasm influences attitudes towards policies as well as candidates.  Brader and co-authors (2008) demonstrate enthusiasm towards immigration policy to be a function of partisanship and nationalism levels.  When it comes to political news, enthusiastic voters seek out pro-attitudinal sources, while only Democrats also seek out counter-attitudinal news as a function of enthusiasm (Song 2016).  This finding comports with physiological data that suggests liberals and conservatives have different orientations towards information, with the former being more open to new information (Hibbing et al. 2013).

Taken together, enthusiasm appeals can be influential during a campaign as they can motivate individuals to get behind their candidates, get involved, tune-in, and vote.  This may be particularly beneficial in the early-stages of a campaign, in June and July, when the focus is on defining the candidate’s image and narrative as opposed to attacking the opponent.  Enthusiasm appeals are best suited to “feel good” biographical ads, such as Bill Clinton’s “The Man from Hope.”

Hope appeals, on the other hand, are ideal when a campaign wants a positive emotion but would also like to motivate more effortful information processing such an evaluation of future circumstances.  “Yes We Can” is an example of such an ad.  The online ad, produced by Black Eyed Peas singer, motivated voters to think about how to achieve change and also provided an answer: by voting for Obama.

Using Emotions Strategically

Campaign professionals recognize the importance of speaking to potential voters at an emotional level.  As communications consultant Tucker Martin states, “Emotion is at the center of American politics.  You have to have people excited if you want to win” (Warren 2016).  Author Rick Shenkman speaks of Donald Trump’s effective use of emotions in the 2016 presidential campaign:  “What Trump has been doing since he joined the race is to trigger ancient instincts that swamp our other faculties. Like a sadistic dentist who seems eager to make us feel pain, he’s constantly drilling around sensitive nerves as if he wants to make us cry out with a loud yelp, the louder the better” (Lindley 2016).  And Trump was not alone.  Says Shenkman:  “It’s true of all politicians. They’re all pushing emotional buttons in the hope of drawing a strong response.”

Empirical research suggests the use of specific emotional appeals in political advertising is quite common.  Brader (2006) reports on coding of the emotional appeals contained in over 1,400 political ads aired in 1999 and 2000.  He finds that enthusiasm is the most common emotional appeal, appearing in 73 percent of ads.  Appeals to pride were found in 54 percent of ads, anger appeals were present in 46 percent of ads, followed by fear appeals in 41 percent of the ads and compassion appeals in 21 percent of the ads.  Appeals to sadness and amusement appeared in 9 percent of the ads.  Only .28 percent of the ads contained no appeal to emotion, though about one-fourth of ads contained only a weak appeal.

We similarly coded emotional appeals made in 628 political advertisements that aired in U.S. Senate races in 2004 (Ridout and Searles 2011).  Our findings were fairly consistent with Brader’s findings:  pride was the most common emotional appeal, with 85 percent of ads containing an appeal to pride.  Eighty-four percent of ads contained an appeal to enthusiasm, 48 percent contained an appeal to anger, and 24 percent employed a fear appeal.

Here are some more recent examples from each category.

Appeal to anger (with hope at the end):

Appeal to fear/anxiety:

Appeal to hope:

The emotional appeals within political messages are conveyed not only by the spoken words but by the visuals, music and narration as well.  For instance, Brader (2006) finds that ads filmed in black and white are ten times more likely to contain a fear or anger appeal than a pride or enthusiasm appeal, while bright colors coincide with positively valenced emotions.  Moreover, “uplifting, sentimental or patriotic music” is typically present in enthusiasm and pride ads but not in fear or anger ads (Brader 2006).  And while American flags appear in about 25 percent of ads that contain an appeal to fear or anger, they appear in about 45 percent of ads that contain an appeal to enthusiasm or pride.

Two caveats, however, are worth noting here.  First, just because a political message contains an appeal to a particular emotion does not mean that all viewers will experience that emotion (Schnur 2007).  An ad that raises the specter of Hillary Clinton appointing the next justice of the U.S. Supreme Court might raise anxiety or fear among many Republicans while invoking enthusiasm or calmness among many Democrats.  Second, the coding of emotional appeals can be fraught.  Coders are typically instructed to assess which emotion or emotion the message was intended to invoke, not the emotion that the coder experienced.  Even with this instruction, it can be a challenge to get coders to agree on the emotions being invoked.  Although coders tend to agree when coding appeals to pride, there are often disagreements when coding appeals to enthusiasm (Brader 2006).

When do campaigns choose to use appeals to certain emotions?  One theory that has provided some theoretical guidance on this question is affective intelligence theory (Marcus, et al. 2000; Marcus and MacKuen 1993). This theory relates emotional responses to one of two systems, the disposition system and the surveillance system.  The disposition system identifies behaviors that have been successful in the past and calls emotions from one dimension arrayed from happiness to sadness, with each emotion representing the endpoints.  Other emotions arrayed along this dimension include hope, pride, and enthusiasm.  A second “aversion” dimension was later added, and is characterized by anger (Marcus et al. 2000).

Marcus and colleagues theorize that the experience of any of the emotions unique to the disposition system, such as enthusiasm, leads to predictable behavioral consequences.  For example, the experience of enthusiasm results in a person relying on partisan habits, such as consuming news from CNN every evening.  Anger has a similar effect, leading partisans to dig-in to their political beliefs, for example, and double-down on behaviors that have proven successful in the past, such as voting for Democrats again and again.   This buoying effect is of import to political strategists who might utilize appeals to emotions such as pride anger to reinforce people’s partisan attitudes and motivate them to support the party’s candidate.  Thus, incumbents, candidates in less competitive races, and leading candidates should be more likely to invoke the emotions on the disposition system.

By contrast, the surveillance system alerts individuals to stimuli (i.e., pay attention!), calling emotions from a dimension defined by calm and anxious at each endpoint.  Marcus and colleagues argue that emotions from this dimension, such as fear, lead to individuals searching for information and re-evaluating their current political circumstances.  For example, voters experiencing fear may assess their economic situation and decide they need to look into Trump’s tax policy.  It follows, then, that challengers, candidates in more competitive races, and candidates who are trailing should be more likely to invoke the emotions of fear and anxiety to encourage voters to re-evaluate life with the incumbent candidate and possibly, opt to vote for the challenger.

A couple of studies have examined how campaign context influences the decision to use particular emotional appeals.  First, the stage of the campaign matters.  Ridout and Searles (2011) report that ads making appeals to anger peak in the month before Americans vote on Election Day in early November.  Enthusiasm appeals, by contrast, were most common in August, while pride appeals peaked in July. It seems, then, that appeals with a positive valence are more common early in a campaign when candidates are trying to consolidate the support of those voters inclined to back them.  Democratic candidates want to make sure Democrats are solidly in their camp, and Republican candidates want to make sure that Republican voters are solidly in their camp.

Second, incumbency status affects the use of emotional appeals.  Conventional wisdom from campaign professionals is that incumbents use appeals to fear—often times fear of change—and challengers use appeals to hope—hope that things can be better (Vallance 2016).  Yet data from American political campaigns do not universally support this claim.  Challengers are more likely to use fear appeals (Brader 2006) and are more likely to use anger appeals (Ridout and Searles 2011), thought there is disagreement on whether incumbents are more likely (Brader 2006) or less likely to use appeals to enthusiasm (Ridout and Searles 2011).

The competitiveness of the race can also have an impact on the specific emotional appeals that are employed by a campaign.  Brader (2006) finds an increase of fear-focused ads in more competitive races, while Ridout and Searles (2011) find that anger-focused ads increase when the race is more competitive.  Finally, whether candidates are leading or trailing can also influence the likelihood that their campaign will use certain emotional appeals (Schnur 2007).  Candidates who are leading are less likely than those who are trailing to use anger or fear appeals, and those who are leading are more likely than those who are trailing to use enthusiasm or pride appeals (Ridout and Searles 2011).  In sum, it seems that negatively valenced emotional appeals are more common when a race is more competitive and when a candidate sponsoring the message is trailing.

Of course, other factors might influence when campaigns choose to use certain emotional appeals.  For instance, Schnur (2007) suggests that campaigns might employ different appeals depending on the characteristics of the audience.  In short, the decision to use an emotional appeal is a strategic one.

The 2016 Campaign: Trump and Clinton Ads

In 2016, presidential candidates Trump and Clinton used appeals to emotion in a much different way.  We examined the emotional appeals in 22 ads pro-Trump ads and 32 pro-Clinton ads that aired between Labor Day and Election Day.  The pro-Trump ads were largely sponsored by the Trump campaign but there were five sponsored by Future 45, a pro-Trump super PAC, and one ad sponsored by the National Rifle Association’s political arm.  The pro-Clinton ads were largely paid for by the Clinton campaign, but a few were sponsored by Priorities USA Action, a super PAC that supported her.  We coded for the presence of hope, enthusiasm, anger and fear appeals in each ad and then noted whether the appeal was weak or strong.

Anger was the dominant appeal in pro-Trump ads, appearing in 77.3 percent of them (Table 1).  Most of the appeals were strong ones.  Many of the pro-Trump ads that appealed to anger made reference to Clinton’s email “scandal” or her allegedly profiting from the Clinton Foundation.  A few were more focused on policy issues, such as trade, immigration and ISIS.  Forty-five percent of pro-Trump ads appealed to hope, often making reference to how Trump was going to change the system.  Fewer than a quarter of pro-Trump ads contained appeals to fear, while only 9 percent contained appeals to enthusiasm.  That pro-Trump messages would focus on anger and hope makes sense in some ways, given that he was running against a political insider who was closely tied to the current administration.

Table 1:  Presence of Appeals to Specific Emotions in Campaign Ads
Trump Clinton
Hope 45.5% 28.1%
Enthusiasm 9.1% 53.1%
Anger 77.3% 53.1%
Fear 22.7% 21.9%

Pro-Clinton advertising, by contrast, was evenly split between appeals to enthusiasm and anger, each of which appeared in just of a half of pro-Clinton advertising.  The anger expressed was almost always directed at Donald Trump and his offensive remarks about women and people with disabilities.  Enthusiasm appeals centered on Hillary Clinton and her history of going to bat for families.  Hope was found in 28 percent of ads favoring Clinton, while fear was present in about 22 percent of pro-Clinton ads.  Many of those fear appeals had to do with the danger of Trump’s having access to the nuclear codes.  It is not necessarily surprising that hope would be downplayed in Clinton’s advertising; it was difficult for her, someone with decades of experience in Washington, D.C., to make a case that things would change for the better.  That said, we do find it surprising that pro-Clinton advertising did not appeal to fear over the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency more often.

One other thing we noticed that differed between Clinton and Trump advertising was that the appeals in the advertising for Trump were much stronger.  Sixty-eight percent of the appeals in pro-Trump ads were strong appeals, compared to 52 percent of the appeals in pro-Clinton ads.


In sum, the subject of emotions in politics is a wide-ranging topic.  Those who study emotions in politics, by and large, focus on the impacts of emotions.  Often, the focus is the impact of discrete emotions found in political messaging.  But other research, still in its infancy, examines how campaigns and other political actors choose to deploy emotions strategically.  One thing is certain, however:  the attention given to the study of emotion in politics has grown dramatically over the past 20 years, and we expect that scholarly interest in the topic will continue to grow.

Future research, building on evidence that emotions have distinct attitudinal and behavioral consequences like voting, news consumption, and wearing a campaign button, will likely be more focused on the nuances of such appeals.  For example, it is likely that more work using sophisticated new technologies – such as galvanic skin conductance, eye tracking, and facial recognition software – will evaluate when, where, and for whom types of anger or enthusiasm appeals may work in different types of ads.  Additionally, we expect that campaign professionals and academics alike will utilize the affordances of the Internet to test more types of ads featuring different types of emotional appeals on a variety of participants, not just college sophomores.


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