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Emotions in the American primary elections

06 July 2020
Martijn Blikmans
Martijn Blikmans

It was to be his version of the American Dream. With two grants in his pocket, Martijn Blikmans went off to investigate the effects of emotional communication in the US primary elections – on location. Out of the lab, into the field. In the end, due to the coronavirus pandemic, he had to make do with a single electoral debate and a database of ‘only’ 250,000 tweets.

Text: Eelco Salverda / Photos: Elmer Spaargaren

The Zernike Campus in Groningen on a warm spring morning: a place usually buzzing with activity but now enveloped in a serene silence, broken only by the sounds of two road constructors. The empty picnic tables offer enough space, with a view of blossoming alliums and some oystercatchers chasing a crow. The only marring of this idyllic scene is the reason for this peace and quiet: the coronavirus. The very same coronavirus that is seriously messing with Blikmans’ PhD research. After only six weeks in the US, he was forced to pack up and go home.

‘I’m angry’

Martijn Blikmans is investigating the impact of emotional communication by politicians and how it affects voters. What better place for this type of research than the land of Donald Trump, the man who raised emotional communication to an art form? ‘By emotional communication, I mean politicians openly talking about their feelings, such as anger or disgust. This kind of communication often has a moral component. You believe something to be right or wrong. It’s connected to what you want and hope to achieve in society. This is why politicians are such a great focus group. And there is still relatively little research about it.’

Bernie Sanders shouting during a speech at a political rally on the UNR campus. (Photo: Tyler O'Neill)
Bernie Sanders shouting during a speech at a political rally on the UNR campus. (Photo: Tyler O'Neill)

Emotions are frowned upon

Blikmans is investigating two potential effects of emotional communication: contagion and goal inference. ‘The former refers to times when an emotion is directly transferred to the listener: “I’m angry and now you’re angry too”. With goal inference, the emotion is an additional source of information. People look through the emotion to the underlying intention. They pick up on the message between the lines. In my first studies on how people communicate anger and disgust, I discovered that goal inference is more common than contagion. An emotion often hides a more radical goal, for example wanting to radically overhaul the current system or blaming administrators. As a rule, people tend to find emotional messages inappropriate, but this disapproval doesn’t seem to affect support for the underlying goal.’

Magic trick

Blikmans’ research has its roots in personal amazement. ‘I was genuinely shocked by the events of 2016: Trump’s election, the Brexit referendum results... I didn’t think such things could ever happen. I wondered whether people had been captivated by some kind of magic trick or whether they really stood behind their choices.’ He has since found out that the latter is true and has had to adjust his harmonious worldview. But still: Trump and other politicians did know how to get people on their side. ‘How did they do it?’, Blikmans wondered.

Surfing on discontent

There are limits to how many people you can win over with emotional communication. A Democrat is unlikely to switch to voting for Trump because of an angry tweet, or an attack on a journalist during a press conference. ‘But Trump did manage to convince Republicans and get himself nominated. This is his playing field. In a way, he’s preaching to the choir but within those parameters, there are a number of denominations that he can convince of his position. And from this perspective, we have to admit that Trump has been extremely successful in his communication in appealing to discontent.’

Martijn Blikmans seemed to have struck gold with his research during the US primary elections.
Martijn Blikmans seemed to have struck gold with his research during the US primary elections.

Go West, young man!

So much for theory – now for fieldwork. This was supposed to happen in the US. In preparation, Blikmans had asked test subjects to read texts and he had analysed their responses. He planned to study the effects of emotional communication in the American primary elections. With a Sustainable Society grant from the University of Groningen and a grant from the European Association of Social Psychology in his pocket, he made his way to Chicago. An associate professor there had agreed to teach him the ins and outs of collecting and analysing tweets, following which he planned to study the electoral debates and the tweets that they elicited. ‘I had hoped to attend the live debates between the final Democratic presidential candidates. What did they say, and more importantly, how did they say it? And how did the public respond on Twitter?’

No crowning glory

This was the plan, until the coronavirus threw a spanner in the works. ‘I landed in Chicago on 1 February,’ says Blikmans. He smiles briefly at the memory. ‘Looking back, I remember that this was the day when the second Covid-19 case was reported in the US, in Chicago of all places. But no one was really concerned about it. In mid-March, I went to visit my girlfriend in Denver. Then things started to happen really fast. Europeans were no longer allowed into the US, the campuses in Chicago and Denver closed down, the Netherlands quickly went from sneezing in your elbow to lockdown. We said to each other: “Either we go back now, or we’ll be stuck in a basement for the next three months”.’ In the end, the pair decided to return to the Netherlands – leaving a suitcase behind in Chicago. What followed was a bumpy return journey involving a snow storm, problems rebooking a ticket, and € 1,800 worth of costs. Now Blikmans is back in Groningen and, in retrospect, he is happy with his decision to leave – even though it has meant missing out on the crowning glory of his research.

250,000 tweets

The thing is, Blikmans was supposed to stay in the US until mid-May. A beautiful time for a researcher: the make-or-break point in the primary elections. Blikmans is disappointed but resigned to the situation. ‘It definitely means that I have to redesign part of my PhD research. I would have liked to have learnt so much more about analysing tweets. In the end, I could only follow one live debate and collect tweets about it.’ He is still wondering what to do with the data, especially now that the coronavirus has set the tone for the remaining debates and that there is less space for the kind of emotional communication that Blikmans is interested in. A database of 250,000 tweets barely scratches the surface of the quarry of gold that he was planning to mine.

Moving on

What now? He will have to redesign some of the fieldwork for his research. He’ll figure something out. He likes the creative side of research: thinking about a research design, testing it, putting together questionnaires. But he’s still upset about the situation, as thinking about a real-life scenario and analysing it is not the same as processing questionnaires. Maybe the Dutch elections next year will represent a new opportunity – he’s not sure about this, but he feels optimistic. First, though, he needs to process what happened. And unpack his suitcase, the one that’s finally on its way from the US.

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Martijn Blikmans

Last modified:06 July 2020 10.41 a.m.
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