What Trump and Clinton’s voices may tell us

Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton speaking
Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton's vocal pitch and resonance affects how voters perceive their strength and competence.

By Hannah Moulthrop

By now American voters know the voices of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. As they listen, Americans are unconsciously picking up on qualities in the candidates’ voices, experts say. How Trump and Clinton sound affects voters’ perception of their leadership capacity.

While Trump’s and Clinton’s voices leave voters with impressions of their authority and competence, the researchers agree that the idiosyncrasies of a particular election might mitigate the impact of the candidates’ voices.

The average listener hears people’s voices and gathers information on their gender, age, general physical stature, and emotional state, according to experts who study the human voice.

“We’re data gathering machines, said Rindy Anderson, a Florida Atlantic University biology professor who studies human and animal vocal communication systems. “Whether you know it or not your brain is processing information about the candidates, the people that you’re listening to and it’s extracting that information from those voices,” she said.

When it comes to those vying for leadership roles, recent studies show listeners are particularly attuned to vocal pitch.

Candidate Voice Pitch Influences Election Outcomes,” published in the journal Political Psychology in 2015, found that voters prefer male and female candidates with lower-pitched voices in a lab setting. A second study looked at the results of the 2012 U.S. House elections and found that candidates with lower voices won more votes when facing a male opponent. But for a man running against a woman, having a higher voice correlated with winning more votes.

That’s not usually the case,  though.

“Men who have those lower pitched voices are not only perceived as more sexually attractive, but also as more socially dominant and physically stronger and competent and so those are good things if you’re trying to run for office,” said Anderson, who contributed to the studies on voice pitch.

Higher pitched voices are more attractive for women, but lower pitched voices are perceived as more competent and socially dominant, Anderson said.

“So women have this sort of problem,–you can either be sexy or you can be taken seriously,” she said.

While voters hear Trump’s and Clinton’s pitches, perhaps noting other characteristics, Christopher Arneson, professor of voice pedagogy at Westminster Choir College of Rider University and at Princeton University, analyzes their speeches to assess how effectively they use their voices. Arneson is a professional voice trainer. Over his career, he has taught politicians, actors and lawyers how to be convincing and how to use their voices to communicate their messages.

Trump’s voice “has a rather rough and husky quality to it,” Arneson said in a phone interview, adding “and it’s a little bit without resonance and without focus. So it’s not immediately captivating because he doesn’t speak with a lot of resonance in the voice.”

At the same time, the way Trump speaks makes him sound authoritative, Arneson said. “His voice goes down, ends down in pitch at the end of sentences. We connect to that sound as being authoritative,” he added.

Accents are another subtle feature Arneson picks up on. Trump has a mild New York accent and Clinton has a Chicago area accent. Arneson said people make certain unconscious assumptions when they hear particular accents.

“Unlike the airy and husky quality of Mr. Trump’s voice, Mrs. Clinton has got a very resonant voice partially due to her Midwestern accent. And the way that they form vowels in the Midwest produces a very specific resonance,” he said. “So she’s got a more authoritative voice in the resonance area, and he’s got a less authoritative voice in the resonance area.”

Because of her life experiences and line of work, Clinton has taken on a more masculine way of speaking, Arneson said. Her authoritative way of speaking contributes to the perception that she’s not vulnerable or sensitive.

Sounding authoritative may not be wholly to Clinton’s detriment. Voter preference for candidates with lower voices is strongest for female voters judging female candidates, said Casey Klofstad, a professor of political science at the University of Miami and author of “Candidate Voice Pitch Influences Election Outcomes,” published in Political Psychology in 2015.

For male candidates who are running against a woman, having a higher voice is more advantageous, his studies show.

While Trump’s pitch is average for a male, Clinton’s is lower than the average woman’s voice, Arneson said.

Both men’s and women’s voices drop as they age, according to Anderson. Men’s voices drop at puberty and remain low until older age, and women’s voices drop as they age, especially after menopause, she said.

Anderson echoed what Arneson said about Trump’s and Clinton’s voice pitch.

“Donald Trump does not have a particularly low pitched voice and he’s speaking to a woman who has a lower, I wouldn’t say uncharacteristically low, pitched voice. She’s 69 years old. She has a lower voice than the average woman because of her age and so the gap between their voice pitches is actually not all that large.”

Age is not a significant factor behind why people tend to prefer lower pitched voices, Anderson said. The perception of strength and competence in lower voices, not advanced age seems to be why they appeal to people, she said.

Content aside, Arneson said, “Clinton’s voice is the stronger vocal sound. She makes the stronger, more resonant vocal sound. It’s got more. It’s more audible. It is more forceful and so, taking out the components of content, she would be the clear winner. Trump wouldn’t win anything on voice,” adding that it is not because he prefers her as a candidate. He doesn’t really.

In the actual campaign, voters are also seeing Trump and Clinton and are perhaps more affected by what they see than what they hear if Klofstad’s currently unpublished data are any indication.

While Trump’s and Clinton’s voices give voters impressions of their leadership capacity, the researchers said they are currently working on whether these voter preferences have any relation to actual leadership ability.

What Trump and Clinton could do to be more successful would be to train their voices, according to Arneson and Klofstad.

While “the pitch of your voice is physiologically determined, it is bounded by the physiology of your voice box and your vocal cords, but you can modulate the pitch of your voice to certain degrees and you can train your voice within a certain boundary,” Klofstad said, adding that “Candidates would be more successful if they would train their voices to be in a lower, more deliberative tone of voice.”

Photo at top: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s vocal pitch and resonance affect how voters perceive their strength and competence. (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)