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What Role Did Gender Play In The Trump vs. Clinton Debates?

gender perception experiment

Maria Guadalupe, associate professor of economics and political science at the French business school INSEAD, had a bold idea. Suppose Donald Trump was a woman and Hillary Clinton was a man. Would gender reversal make a difference in the perceptions of the candidates in the minds of the millions of people watching the presidential debates?

Guadalupe’s research to find an answer to that question has potentially significant implications for future politicians hoping to win elections. The findings also challenge some widely-held assumptions about how males and females are perceived.

To discover the answer, Guadalupe designed and conducted an elaborate experiment. Collaborating with Joe Salvatore, associate professor of educational theater at NYU Steinhardt, the pair developed a production, Her Opponent. Two actors performed excerpts from the three presidential debates, accurately mimicking the words, tone, posture, and gestures of the two candidates—with one major exception. A male actor played the Hillary Clinton role as a character named Jonathan Gordon. A female actor played the Donald Trump role as a character named Brenda King. As the female Trump, King paced the stage, sniffed into the microphone often, interrupted Gordon repeatedly, and sharply attacked her opponent. Gordon, channeling Hillary, smiled and nodded continuously, and recited rehearsed statements in calm, measured tones.

“They didn’t listen so much to the content. She was just really committed and passionate about what she was saying”

The actors presented two performances of the production to standing-room-only crowds (of mostly academicians) on January 28, 2017, at the Provincetown Playhouse on Cape Cod. In true research style, the audience completed pre and post-performance surveys. The pre-performance survey asked about their impressions of the original Trump-Clinton debates. The post-performance survey asked questions about their reaction to the restaged Gordon-King debates.

Both Guadalupe and the audience were stunned by their reactions to the restaged debate. Guadalupe had assumed that observers would find Trump’s style of “interruption and attack” unacceptable in a woman and perceive Clinton’s steadiness and preparedness as even more commanding in a man. Instead, even during rehearsals, Guadalupe and Salvatore found themselves drawn to the female Trump, the exact opposite of their hypothesis.

The mostly liberal audience found themselves challenged by the experience, as well. Many failed to find in Gordon the qualities they admired in Clinton, rather finding his style grating. “They liked that [Brenda King] was more passionate,” Guadalupe said. “Genuine. Emotional. People were connecting with her emotionally. They didn’t listen so much to the content. She was just really committed and passionate about what she was saying.”

Trump’s victory is considered one of the great political upsets; however, this exercise in role reversal may help explain Trump’s appeal—making the emotional connection to a simple, repetitive message. It also provides an insight into the stereotypes in our society, and how age-old perceptions and emotional responses still greatly affect people’s decision-making.

What if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Had Swapped Genders? Hillary may have actually have won, but only if she had changed her style and had a message…

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