Polling the subconscious — Hillary's emails

It’s plagued the Democratic candidate throughout the campaign, an issue that Trump has pressed relentlessly to assert his claims of Hillary’s corruption. But is there anything we can learn from neuroscience regarding how much the email scandal hurts Hillary? And what happens now with the announcement by the FBI director of fresh material to consider?

Brainsights recorded the subconscious brain activity of voters as they watched the final Presidential debate, which gives us a unique dataset with which to investigate just how persuaded voters are with respect to any issue that was discussed. 90–95% of what drives our decision-making happens at the non-conscious level, so measuring the non-conscious response of voters to the greatest piece of political communication — a 90 minute debate watched live by more than 75M people — offers an ideal opportunity to peer into the choice machinery of voters.

Hillary’s Emails v Hillary’s Character

Clinton’s emails were explicitly mentioned 3 times throughout the debate (this excludes mentions of Wikileaks-related email leaks). All of these mentions came during the Fitness to be President section. Trump mentioned the emails twice, and Clinton mentioned the emails once.

Trump: “What isn’t fictionalized are her emails, where she destroyed 33,000 emails criminally — Criminally — after getting a subpoena for the United States Congress

Trump: “She should never have been allowed to run for the Presidency based on what she did with emails, and so many other things”).

Clinton: “Well Chris, let me respond to that because that’s horrifying. You know every time Donald thinks things are not going in his direction, he claims whatever it is is rigged against him. The FBI conducted a year long investigation into my emails, they concluded there was no case. He claimed the FBI was rigged….”

These Trump email claims performed on average 3% and 14% (respectively) less effective in persuading voters than the mean for the debate.

Clinton’s assertion, on the other hand, was one of her finest in the debate. It was on average more than 22% more persuasive than the debate mean, and came at a key moment for her in repelling a Trump attack on her trustworthiness.

Clinton handily won the battle for voter brains in the Fitness to be President section of the debate. Her arguments were on average 8.5% more persuasive than Trump’s. Voters encoded 21% more of what Clinton said to their memories than they did for Trump; in other words, Clinton’s positions were of far more value to voters.

And her attacks on Trump were particularly effective: they were on average 12% more persuasive for voters than Trump’s attacks on her.

Insofar as this election is about the character of the candidate — and with the candidates’ favourability at historic lows, it’s mostly about keeping the attention fixed on the other candidate’s character — Hillary’s performance was convincing. And in her concise and compelling address of her email case with the FBI, Clinton swiftly laid to rest a popular attack point of the opposition’s. Voters were persuaded by Clinton’s saying that the FBI’s case on her emails was closed.

The Threats and Risks to Hillary

However, Democrats should remain cautious for three reasons. First, a closer look at Trump’s email claims suggests the Democratic candidate isn’t quite out of the woods on this topic.

When we broke down his declaration “What isn’t fictionalized are her emails, where she destroyed 33,000 emails criminally — Criminally — after getting a subpoena for the United States Congress”, his persuasiveness recovers considerably towards its end. From “Where she destroyed”, Trump is 13% more persuasive than the debate average. (His other email claim mentioned above was weak throughout.)

Secondly, Trump landed some other significant blows on Hillary during the Fitness to be President section, attacking her character more broadly. Two moments in particular stand out for Trump when he describes how a 4-Star general will probably go to jail for lying to the FBI once. First, his particularly incendiary “She’s lied hundreds of times — to the people, to Congress and to the FBI” was 44% more persuasive than the debate average. And second, when he asserts that “She gets away with it, and she can run for the Presidency of the United States? That’s really what you should be talking about. Not fiction, where somebody wants fame, or they come out of her crooked campaign”, he’s 26% more persuasive for voters.

Both of these moments cut through the heart of Hillary’s greatest perceived weaknesses — her untrustworthiness and the perception that she’s a political insider with special privileges.

It’s easy to dismiss Trump’s attacks as incoherent and lacking specifics. Indeed, his other email claim mentioned above trails off into non-specifics (“because of the emails and so many other things”), landing poorly with voters. But in between the outrageous, when he’s managed to deliver coherent attacks, he’s persuaded voters effectively.

For Trump, it’s the tax laws that Hillary helped to make. For Hillary, it’s the “country’s interests and values”. What’s ethically acceptable is apparently less important.

And at moments, Clinton helps him. This is the third reason for caution.

When Clinton is grilled by Chris Wallace over conflicts of interest with the Clinton Foundation, her immediate response is “Everything I did as Secretary of State was in furtherance of our country’s interests and our values”. This was one of her worst moments of the Fitness to be President section: 36% less persuasive than the debate average.

Voters aren’t buying this line. This is Clinton’s version of Trump’s not paying taxes — deferring to a higher body to shift responsibility. For Trump, it’s the tax laws that Hillary helped to make. For Hillary, it’s the “country’s interests and values”. What’s ethically acceptable is apparently less important.

Furthermore, in her closing statements, Hillary says, “I’ve been privileged to see the Presidency up close”, which is 12% less persuasive than the debate average. But in this instance, it’s not that voters don’t buy this claim; it’s rather that the language of “privilege” and “up close” puts them off.

These moments are important in understanding what sticks for Hillary, and how new information about her and her perceived transgressions will be interpreted.

So what does this mean now with less than a week to go to Election Day, and the FBI Director’s latest bombshell that a new batch of emails is being reviewed?

Given that the heat is on Clinton, it’s worth considering how her campaign has responded based on what we know works on the decision-making mechanisms of voters.

How Hillary Must Respond

Here’s our evaluation, and what we’d be doing differently:

  1. Clinton’s immediate response to the new information, demanding the FBI Director fully disclose the pertinent facts in service of the American people is the right way forward. Importantly, she frames her demands in the service of democracy and the American peoples’ right to know.

  2. The tone of her official response to the new information was solid, but could have been framed in more human terms and with perhaps more conviction. Her statement “I’m confident whatever {the facts are in the new emails} they will not change the conclusions reached in July {not to prosecute Clinton}” was by the book and tightly scripted, but would have benefitted from more emphasis in her confidence.

  3. Clinton should call off her Democratic party — and campaign — colleagues’ hunt for James Comey’s head. She can’t risk coming across as a string-puller behind the scenes — this does nothing to dispel the political insider perception she carries. Further, the more attention the party pays to Comey at this stage in the campaign, the more Trump and the Republicans can claim that there’s legitimate concern here for Clinton, which reinforces their persuasive line about Hillary’s shadowy dealings.

  4. Clinton needs to make these final days about attacking the credentials and character of Trump. This is where she’s most effective. But crucially, she should follow up these attacks by reminding voters of her own experience, provided they contain a human element, like when she speaks about her fight for women’s rights and worker’s rights. This is especially important now that the debates are over. We know that Trump can be persuasive in between his sometimes-rambling incoherence from the debate. Now that he’s away from the debate stage and on the campaign trail, his message can be more rehearsed, on point and persuasive. Clinton needs to fight to the finish to ensure she gets the last word, and every last vote.

Learn more about how persuasive each candidate was on the issues by playing with our interactive tool here.