Hillary Clinton Debate Podium: Psychology Tells Us Size Matters, But Debates Don’t

Photos of Hillary Clinton’s debate podium, or what many have assumed to be hers, have been circulating online before the first presidential debate kicks off on Monday evening.

The images of the debate podium, thought to be for the shorter Hillary, were originated by Rita Cosby, an Emmy-winning reporter who was given access to the New York venue where Clinton will spar with Donald Trump.

While observing the debate stage, Cosby noted a significant size difference between the two podiums: One of them had been stacked with plywood to add a few extra inches. While she was clear that there was no confirmation that the altered stand was for Hillary, it didn’t take long before Clinton started to take heat on social media.

Near consensus that the souped-up podium is for Hillary isn’t just conjecture based on which candidate is taller. Last month, the Clinton team’s request for a leg up at the debates was reported by several news outlets. While that initial request was denied, Boston Herald reported that each candidate would be allowed to make their own, something Northeastern University debate expert Alan Schroeder downplayed the importance of — especially in this particular race.

“The campaigns have a tendency to get more paranoid about this than they need to… But certainly there are statistics that show taller candidates win at a higher percentage than shorter candidates. However, I think that’s probably more of a factor with two men or two women. The fact you have a man and a woman, it seems to me not that big of a deal.”

Trump supporters, standing behind a candidate whose “small hands” briefly became a focus of his own party’s nomination process, gleefully received news that Hillary was looking to get a foot up, literally, on her opponent at the debate. Podium aside, Clinton stands at 5’4″ compared to Donald’s 6’2″.

Of course, the issue of how the public perceives height in a debate, podium boost for Hillary or not, isn’t one to be taken lightly. Studies have shown that not only are taller people more commanding of respect, but they are actually likely to make more money than their shorter counterparts. The link is especially strong in management and sales positions, where human interaction is highly valued. The next President of the United States, whether it be Clinton or Trump, would also be likely to benefit from a few extra inches.

Though the study was released years before Hillary Clinton’s debate podium debacle, one of the researchers behind the data, Timothy A. Judge, noted that such an association between height and power may actually be evolutionary, reported the American Psychological Association.

“The process of literally ‘looking down on others’ may cause one to be more confident. Similarly, having others ‘looking up to us’ may instill in tall people more self-confidence… Perhaps when humans were in the early stages of organization, they used height as an index for power in making ‘fight or flight’ decisions. Of course, physical stature and prowess may be less important today, but those evolutionary appraisals may still be with us.”

With those biases in mind, the public is left wondering whether or not such an affirmative action debate podium is needed to root out a subconscious focus on size. Does Hillary deserve to be level-headed with Trump, or should the American public be taking into account the fact that, yes, Clinton is almost a foot shorter than the Republican nominee?

All of these ideas about how a podium could influence an election must be taken into account with another psychological finding: Debates don’t really change much of anything at all. Unless Hillary has a coughing fit or Trump suffers a heart attack, it’s unlikely that either candidate will take much of a hit at the polls. In an analysis of the last 26 presidential debates, referenced in Psychology Today, two researchers found that most viewers go into these events rooting for the same person they leave supporting — barring some kind of catastrophic meltdown.

“Televised debates change public opinion only if one candidate’s performance is so obviously superior to their rival, that even opposed supporters must concede the reality of their victory.”

Already trending as a hashtag with #podiumgate, the issue of the Hillary Clinton debate podium will no doubt become a common point of reference for jokes on Twitter during the presidential debates this evening. While one may hope for policy to dominate the stage, it wouldn’t be the first time size has come to the forefront this election cycle.

[Image via Chip Somodevilla and Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]