If you were to watch the Presidential debates on mute–what would you have seen? This election is a veritable treasure trove of nonverbal cues. More people believed that Governor Mitt Romney ‘won’ the first debate, whereas the second debate was a much closer turn out. Since the first presidential debate had a much bigger discrepancy, I would like to focus on that.

The candidates nonverbal behavior is incredibly important during the campaign trail not only because we, as viewers, pay attention to what we see and what we hear, but also when viewers do not understand a verbal point their brain looks for an answer in the nonverbal behavior. Since this election has some complex tax and health issues there is going to be a large part of the population that, unfortunately, does not quite understand the numbers and arguments the candidates are using, so they are going to focus even more on what they see, not what they hear.

According to University of Pittsburgh Political Communications Professor Jerry Shuster, body language, mannerisms and facial expressions are 85 percent of what an audience takes away. So, here are a few non-verbal cues to watch for in the debates:

nonverbal behavior of the presidential debates

1. Handshakes

You always want to watch who gets the ‘upper hand’ in a handshake. The dominant person is the one who’s back of the hand is facing the audience. So, in the first debate Mitt Romney was the dominant person in the handshake since Obama’s palm was facing the audience (which is seen as weak). However, Obama was able to mitigate the effect of the weak handshake position by patting Romney on the arm, which makes him look like the bigger man.

2. Blink Rate

Blinking can affect how people percieve you. Rapid blinking usually means nerves and a person’s desire to block out what is happening. Boston College pyscho-physiologist Joseph Tecce found that the candidate who blinks more during debates has lost every presidential election since 1980. Of course, George Bush who won the election in 2000 is the only exception because he lost the popular vote. According to Tecce, Governor Mitt Romney blinked about 1,300 times less than Barack Obama, which is one nonverbal reason the public might have felt stronger about Mitt Romney.

3. Laughs

Governor Mitt Romney not only got the first laugh (his joke about celebrating President Obama’s anniversary with him), but he also got the second laugh (a joke about his 5 sons). This is an incredibly powerful tool for viewers because it makes him look charismatic and charming. Most importantly, the jokes seemed unplanned since he played off of Obama’s comments. This made him seem clever to the audience.

4. Eye Contact

I believe Obama’s fatal mistake was that during his opening remarks he looked more at the audience in the studio and at the moderator, instead of at the camera to those at home. Romney looked directly at the camera for most of the time which gave you the feeling he was speaking directly to you. When someone makes eye contact with you it is the ultimate gesture of rapport and trust. So, we started the debates with a greater connection to Romney because of his eye contact.

5. Facial Expressions

Both candidates did a pretty good job of keeping neutral facial expressions. However, if you watched Obama’s face, his mouth was usually in a flat line or with the corners of his mouth turned down. These are neutral to negative facial gestures. Romney’s mouth ranged from flat line to downturned to upturned. He showed more positive facial gestures than Obama, which indicates a more positive outlook. For a country on the verge of a depression, a positive outlook is very encouraging for viewers.

nonverbal behavior of the presidential debates6. Submission

Obama spent a lot of the debate looking down to take notes, looking at his notes or with his head down as he listened. See the picture for what I mean. Romney is looking up, Obama is looking down with his body slightly hunched over and his head ducked. Head ducking and bending over is a sign of submission–literally bowing to the other person. We got this view a lot and I think it made Romney look more dominant.

Keep watching the debates and campaign speeches and let me know what you think!

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About Vanessa Van Edwards

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and behavioral investigator.

I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.

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