A pack of Republican presidential hopefuls squared off in Milwaukee yesterday for their fourth debate of the 2016 election cycle, and nobody is quite sure who won. If you judge by speaking time, ornery hairpiece Donald Trump led the field, with Governor John Kasich and former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina nipping at his heels. Or else—if you listen to stats wizard Nate Silver—it was conservative insurgents Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz who truly came out on top.
There's one factor the pundits rarely take into account, but matters a great deal to voters: body language, the secret sauce that famously helped Kennedy own Nixon in the 1960 presidential debate. Back in October, I chatted with non-verbal communication expert Don Khoury about who truly won the Democratic presidential debate, and I called him again on Wednesday for his assessment of the GOP field. His analysis of each candidate follows below.
Donald Trump was the only relaxed person on the stage. Trump was extremely confident and, in turn, remarkably authentic. His hand gestures were definitive and precise; he would chop and point with his hands, motions that tend to convey certainty. He also tended to tent his fingers together in a contemplative manner. The only time he faltered was when he came under attack by [John] Kasich, but he pushed right back and re-gained his footing.
Compared to everyone else on the stage, Trump was the only person happy to be there. He was the only candidate authentically smiling during candidate introductions. Everyone else was smiling, sure, but it was to mask their true feelings: They were scared to death.
John Kasich was authentic and transparent, but unrehearsed. The former governor looked good on the stage, way more open and authentic than any other candidate but Trump. The only problem was that he wasn't nearly as polished as Trump; when he got aggressive about having time to talk, he simply didn't let it go during the course of the evening, which undermined his authenticity. It's almost as if he went a bit off the rails.
Ben Carson kept creating barriers. The former neurosurgeon looked incredibly uncomfortable on that stage, and you could tell from his body language; he kept placing his hands in front of his body while talking, as if to create a barrier between himself and the rest of the audience.
Carson has another problem unrelated to this debate: He's always blinking. In non-verbal communication, that's usually considered a sign of deceit or dishonesty, but I think it's a natural tic. That tic isn't going to help him in the long run.
Carly Fiorina seemed disgusted. All of her mannerisms telegraphed disgust. She was constantly frowning, flaring her nostrils, often doing both on just one side of her mouth. She seemed to have nothing but disdain for both the moderators and her fellow candidates.
Rand Paul is a non-entity. The man simply doesn't capture your attention at all. His body language was so milquetoast. He would have had better luck on a less crowded stage, maybe.
Marco Rubio was the best trained candidate on that stage. It's obvious that Rubio has the most training and preparation with his non-verbals. This is nicely captured by his use of the "from the heart" motion—putting a hand over his heart—to convey sincerity. He was polished and ready to go from the minute he stepped out on that stage.
The only problem is that he was perhaps too polished. He certainly went through the motions to convey sincerity, but it was a bit too structured, too stiff, to truly seem authentic. He was certainly more put together than Kasich, but it's possible that he was over-prepared, something that hurt him next to the endlessly authentic Trump.
Ted Cruz was no less disgusted than Fiorina. The senator did a far better job masking his disdain for everyone on that stage than Fiorina did, but not by much. You can see it in his face—the narrowing of his eyes, the flaring of his nostrils. He did try to come across as more real and accessible than others, but I'm not convinced it helped.
Jeb Bush was angry the entire time. It's not hard to imagine why, given the beating he's taken in the last few weeks, but you could see the anger radiating off of him during the entire debate. He flared his nostrils in the introductory video and kept it up the entire time, as though he was trying to keep his rage from bursting all over the stage. And you could tell by his phony smile and how still his body language was, [that] he was simply trying to keep his true emotions under wraps.
That said, he was a bit more confident than others on the stage, mainly Carson, but the mask fell when Kasich went after him. Instead of pushing back, he physically took a step back and backed down, a motion that conveys defeat or resignation. He didn't roll with the punches or really stand up for himself. No wonder he had the least speaking time of any candidate. He was weak, and we all knew it.