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The Body Language Behind the Presidential Debates

How candidates' bodies say more than their advertising buys ever will.
From top left: Hillary Clinton (Photo: JStone/Shutterstock); Martin O'Malley (Photo: Gregory Hauenstein/Flickr); Bernie Sanders (Photo: Albert H. Teich/Shutterstock); Jim Webb (Photo: Rob Shenk/Flickr); Lincoln Chafee (Photo: Kenneth C. Zirkel/Wikimedia Commons).

From top left: Hillary Clinton (Photo: JStone/Shutterstock); Martin O'Malley (Photo: Gregory Hauenstein/Flickr); Bernie Sanders (Photo: Albert H. Teich/Shutterstock); Jim Webb (Photo: Rob Shenk/Flickr); Lincoln Chafee (Photo: Kenneth C. Zirkel/Wikimedia Commons).

Who won the Democratic presidential debate? Really, it depends who you ask.

While polling may say differently in time, there are two narratives emerging in the aftermath of Tuesday's contest. The establishment media—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Politico, Bloomberg, and even publications like SlateNew Yorkand Voxtrumpeted a victory for Hillary Clinton, long embroiled in the drip-drip-drip of email revelations and a never-ending plague of personality problems. But the informal online polls and focus groups tell a different story: Bernie Sanders came out on top in the CNN, Fox News, and Fusion focus groups, swept the polls of the conservative Drudge Report and liberal Daily Kos, and cleaned up almost every other online poll, from Time to local network affiliates. While Hillary won the newsrooms of America, Bernie reigned supreme on Twitter and Google.

There are a few potential explanations for this: It's an open secret that Bernie Sanders is Internet catnip, and Hillary's relative success, as Nate Silver argues, is partially dependent on the narratives of media outlets long fixated on the Clinton Comeback. But apart from the debilitating insularity of the Washington political media ecosystem, what else can explain the vast gulf between Clinton's and Sanders' perceived performances?

History offers a potential idea: Body language and non-verbal communication often have an outsized impact on our political perceptions. Consider the 1960 presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy Jr., the first to be nationally televised in United States history. Nixon, recovering from an injury, looked sickly; Kennedy looked young and healthy, exuding confidence. (Nixon later wrote: "I had never seen him looking so fit.") The story goes that, after the debate, those who watched on television overwhelmingly believed Kennedy had won, while radio listeners assumed Nixon had come out on top. This isn't to say that body language guarantees an electoral victory; a 2012 study in the Journal of Communication examining German presidential debates found that a candidate's rhetoric had more of an impact at the polling booth. But for live events, body language can say more than a brilliant stump speech ever will.

Perhaps this is why Bernie Sanders actually came out on top, argues Don Khoury, a Boston-based expert in non-verbal communication who's been scoring executive candidates (governors, presidents) and other leaders for the past decade. I've interviewed Khoury before, and it's not just a crystal ball with him: He had a 95 percent success rate in calling the 2010 gubernatorial elections, which is no small feat. Reminded of this Nixon/JFK perception gap, I spoke with Khoury briefly on Wednesday.


It seems like the entire U.S. political establishment decided that Hillary won. What's your assessment?

To me, this doesn't make any sense, and when I woke up and saw the online polls I felt a little vindicated. All of the talking heads were saying Hillary won, but Bernie came out with like 84 percent with regular viewers.

It's obvious Hillary tried so hard to prepare and to be authentic, [but] there's some phoniness in her body language, and that telegraphs a lack of transparency when compounded with anything else. She was hedging her answers, her facial expressions always seems pained, she would turn her body away from people as she was answering them. Really, it's the masking grin that she has. It's not a real smile; it's something put on for an act. That goes for all politicians, but it was especially pronounced on stage.

Hillary on a number of occasions changed her body language to be less aggressive because that's what everyone is telling her to do, but she still has holdovers—finger pointing, namely, and a level of arrogance that comes across in her incredulous facial expressions. However, you can tell that she really tried to soften it, but maybe it's the lawyer in her that wants to hedge everything, both in her body language and her answers. She's an intelligent woman, of course, but that intelligence is overwhelmed by a sheen of arrogance in how she carried herself on stage.

(Photo: Don Khoury)

(Photo: Don Khoury)

And you think Bernie performed better?

Bernie's body language conveyed transparency and openness. He was leaning into the podium, keeping his arms spread, gesturing with open hands—all of those things convey transparency and openness to the uninitiated viewer. More importantly, he was consistent: What you saw up there was what he's been since he started campaigning.

When Bernie talked, he was leaning into the crowd, he was talking to the crowd, truly engaging. When the crowd reacted to him, you could see the feedback of his body to the crowd. When the crowd cheered for Hillary, [hers] was more of this knowing smile, a "duping delight"—that smirk you get when you've gotten away with something. Bernie is present. He's engaged. He's having a conversation with his audience. With Hillary, she's trying to extract a reaction. It's different.

What can Hillary change before the next debate? Or is it changing things that's the problem?

I think she really has to get out there and be honest and be herself. This face-masking that she constantly does is the biggest problem; she's being an effective politician, but that's hurting her with voters. We all do this. When we try to mask our true emotions, we throw up a fake smile.

What about the other three?

Lincoln Chafee—with his lip movements, before he answered, it was almost like he was trying to stop from answering but couldn't help himself. Webb was way, way too stiff, too awkward. O'Malley was bland—he had no real presence on the stage.

Then again, it doesn't help that I, like everyone else, was more focused on Sanders and Clinton.

If you had to compare the Democratic field to the GOP field, what are the big differences in terms of non-verbal communication?

Everyone's hedging except for Sanders and Donald Trump. Everyone is so still and so measured, and that's giving Trump and Sanders the contrast they need for their authenticity to shine. They're coming out and saying exactly what they think, and everyone else is too scared. Trump and Sanders are leaning into the audience, while everyone else backs off or turns away or tries to deflect.

I'll tell you, people make fun of Trump for being a reality star, but Trump's like Reagan: He's honest in his beliefs, and it comes across in every element of his body language. I was on record last year saying I didn't think Trump had a shot, but since he's been up on the debate stage, it's clear he'll be in it for the long haul.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.