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Who Won the War of Body Language at the First 2016 Presidential Debate?

And what does it mean for the election in November?

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Here’s the thing about presidential debates: Despite all the emphasis on policy prowess, the verbal jousting of career politicians (and, in this case, a longtime businessman) amounts to little more than theater, a wrestling match that’s as much about appearing presidential than actually being as such. This has been a rule of American politics since a young, vibrant John F. Kennedy trounced a sickly Richard Nixon in the first nationally televised debate in 1960 (radio listeners thought Nixon won, so goes the political lore) and revealed the awesome messaging power of the new medium.

The importance of body language is backed by research: A 2015 analysis of real-time reaction to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s body language during the 2012 debates found that candidate gestures and gesticulations were “more consistent and robust predictors of the volume and valence of Twitter expression than candidates’ persuasive strategies, verbal utterances, and voice tone,” as Tom Jacobsreported for Pacific Standard last week. This doesn’t mean body language guarantees a victory at the ballot box; a 2012 study examining German presidential debates found that a candidate’s rhetoric had more of an impact on Election Day. But when it comes to live debates, it’s what politicians don’t say that often matters more than what they do.

To untangle the mysteries of presidential Kabuki theater, Pacific Standard spoke to Don Khoury, a non-verbal communication expert (who we’ve interviewed several times before), to assess who won the stage at the first debate.

Who do you think won the debate?

I scored it 209 to 37 in Trump’s favor. Hillary Clinton had 209 negative non-verbal expressions and he had 37. To qualify this: After the first debate in 2012, I said that President Obama won, and all the talking heads said Mitt Romney won it. And, well, we all know what happened on Election Day.

Nobody remembers what they said, but they remember how they felt about them. You could walk up to anyone on the street, and the majority won’t be able to tell you. The majority of people are going to go for Trump.

Was there a major positive or negative move that defined their respective performances?

Her contemptual facial expressions were off the charts. Clinton is just so transparent in her contempt for other people, including Trump. She thinks she’s going to win, no matter what, and she shouldn’t have to go through this exercise.

You could see this insincerity in her facial expressions. She did more finger pointing than he did, which is a negative, aggressive move. He did grip the lectern a bit too much, but her insincere facial expression, her unfelt smile, her blinking as he spoke … all of these did not help. She hesitated a few times. She seemed to freeze. It was just off.


(Photo: Don Khoury)

Consider the difference between the two when they shrug. When Trump shrugs, he says, “I don’t know,” because he genuinely doesn’t know something. But she would give a number of definitive answers and shrug, which reinforces an unconscious bias that she’s lying. People don’t even know they’re picking up on the shrug, but they are, and it’s a subconscious reminder: They don’t trust her.

Everyone wants Clinton to be real and human and she just can’t do it. You can’t train someone to do that: They either are or they aren’t. She used a lot of trained gestures, but if you don’t have the stuff to back it up, it doesn’t work. It’s like Senator Ted Cruz — they’re just both so incredibly insincere.

As for Trump, his breathing seemed more labored than hers, which conveyed a sense of nervousness of being uncomfortable in the situation.As a whole, taking everything together, she had more rapid jerking movements, accompanied with a ton of tense smiles … and she beat him on the rapid breathing.

Who looked more “presidential”?

Trump did. If you want to boil it down to one thing, it’s the believability and insincerity of Clinton. The one thing that’s most important is that the voters need to believe you. You don’t need to be telling 100 percent of the truth, just more than the person you’re running against. Despite his lies, Trump comes across as far more honest than her. It’s the little things—the facial expressions, the shrugging … all those things lead the voting public to think Clinton’s not being honest.

Were there differences from past performance on the campaign trail?

Trump was much more uncomfortable than normal. Clinton was kind of her standard self, but you would think that she would have been more relaxed.

What do they need to do in the next two debates? What would you recommend?

She needs to figure out what her core governing values are and how she communicates that in an open and honest way. Until she maps what she says and how she acts to her values, it’s just not going to ring true.

I think for Trump, there were a couple of opportunities to slam the door on her and he wasn’t prepared enough to do it. Like the email thing or cybersecurity, he could have slammed her but didn’t. He’s a good performer but he really was unprepared.

But somehow, Clinton was worse: She was prepared on the facts, but she wasn’t prepared on communicating she’s a human being.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.