Bernie Sanders says he can beat Donald Trump because he has more power than anyone to motivate voters to show up at the polls, and a study that used cutting-edge technology at Boston University backs up that claim on the cusp of Super Tuesday.
A biometrics study — essentially an enhanced focus group — is informed by innovative technology that captures voters' emotional and subconscious responses. Unlike focus groups that only rely on self-reported responses, these biometric measures tap into more in-depth subconscious responses. This study showed Sanders generates the most intense emotional response, of the candidates likely to top the voting Tuesday.
The study of 22 registered, likely Massachusetts voters was conducted between Feb. 12 and 22 at Boston University’s Communication Research Center (CRC).
It was the farthest thing from a public-opinion survey, and some researchers think it's the coming thing, as candidates and their consultants search for ways to get their message across impactfully without wasting money on messaging that doesn't engage and activate their audience.
Biometrics studies like the one the CRC conducted for the News Service do ask voters questions in traditional ways, and the group was asked a battery of questions about their personal impressions of the contenders after being presented with their photos and biographies.
But they studied those photos and biographies on a monitor that recorded their eye movements and facial expressions, and while wearing sensors that measured their galvanic skin response - a proven indicator of emotional involvement and arousal.
With a group of 21 Democrats and Independents, and just one Republican, it will come as no shock that the candidate who generated the most negative response as measured by respondents' facial expressions was President Donald Trump. The Democatic candidate who evoked the most negative response was Massachusetts' own Elizabeth Warren. Pete Buttigieg, who suspended his campaign Sunday, caused the greatest number of positive facial responses among the 22 participants.
But there's a gender gap: Buttigieg generated the most positive reaction among men and women. However, men had the most frequent negative responses to Trump, while women showed the most frequent negative emotions towards Sanders. The group was evenly split, 11 and 11, between male and female respondents. Women displayed far fewer negative responses than the men to the candidates in total, and many more positive responses than the men.
However, the self-reported data showed that Sanders scored the highest for "trustworthiness," "moral," and "approachable." These factors were found to be strongly related to respondents' likelihood to vote for a candidate.
The facial expression metric measures the number of times a stimulus is producing a detectable emotional response at all. The galvanic skin measurement, which detects emotional arousal through tiny changes in skin conductivity caused by perspiration, measures the strength of response. On that front, Sanders generated the most "spikes" - jumps in conductivity caused by emotional arousal.
On the other hand, galvanic skin response (GSR) only measures arousal and doesn't indicate whether the emotion is positive or negative.
"It's not going to tell us how someone feels," said center director Mina Tsay-Vogel. "We really need to combine a number of different measures with GSR, such as facial expression analysis, eye tracking, and self-reported data to assemble a fuller understanding of how people are emotionally and cognitively responding to these candidates."
But combined with the facial expression metrics, and the traditional Q and A respondents went through, the skin response data paints a picture of a candidate who's doing what Sanders is doing - leading an unlikely and highly successful movement of devotees - and lends credence to his oft-claim he can win the White House by generating "the highest voter turnout in history."
Anne Danehy, a pollster and consultant who's made a career out of traditional opinion research but is an evangelist of the inclusion of these newer methods that transcend at least some psychological polling bias, said her industry is just beginning to see the value of newer methods.
"The ability to tap into the unconscious to help understand voter attitudes and motivation is incredibly valuable,” Danehy wrote in a text exchange. "I don't think it will replace polling, but I do see it augmenting it."