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What do 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2020 have in common?
They are U.S. presidential election years! Woo-woo!
This year I put together a Presidential Debate Watch Guide and body language analysis of Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Presidential debates are a great way to see some of the candidates’ “unscripted” body language gestures and nuances. Of course, some of the answers are likely scripted and practiced ahead of time, but these debates give us a much better idea of natural gestures than scripted stump speeches.
In this article, I review all the things you can watch for in the debate coming up, but also I’m going to review some previous presidential debates and go over some interesting nonverbal cues (links to the debate videos down below).
Let’s dive in.
The Grand Entrance
The grand entrance is the first impression of a debate. Studies show that you have 7 seconds to make a first impression— and you can bet the presidential candidates take full advantage of these precious moments.
Throughout my observations, I’ve noticed that the stronger the first impression a candidate makes, the more likely it is that they’re going to win the debate. A sloppy first impression can stick around in peoples’ minds all throughout the debate, while a great one can have lasting positive benefits.
One thing to watch for with political body language is where the candidates meet. Do they meet in the middle? Or does someone make an invasive move?
Let’s take a look at George W. Bush— in both the 2000 and 2004 debates, he struts right onto the stage and actually invades the other candidate’s territory by crossing onto their side to initiate a handshake.
Here, Bush claims more territory and more space. This gives him a higher perceived dominance and importance over Al Gore. He also has to walk fast to reach the other candidate’s side, showing his physical finesse and prowess.
Presidential Facial Expressions
How should a president look? We like our president’s both serious and approachable. Did you notice Bush’s facial expression while he walked in? He did what I call the “serious glare” with his lower eyelids hardened. We do the serious glare when we’re focusing really hard. This makes Bush’s first impression powerful, and makes him look determined and focused.
Now if you take a look at something more “scripted”— the walk-ons of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, for example, you might notice their movements being more robotic and practised.
Body language, in its natural form, is extremely hard to fake. Natural body language often comes out as sporadic and awkward body movements.
You can see natural body language clearly in Bush’s first debate entrance.
With Trump and Clinton however, you see the practiced, precise body language of both candidates. This is them showing the audience how they want to be perceived.
Right as Clinton gets close to Trump, she takes the initiative by saying, “Hey, how are you, Donald?”
This immediately gives away her hidden motive to appear warm and friendly to the audience. She further displays high warmth by waving to the audience and then taking it one step further by pointing to the crowd and giving an eyebrow flash:
Whether Clinton actually recognized a member of the crowd or not isn’t important— doing this move increased her likability and perceived popularity, since we only tend to eyebrow flash people we like. She then turns to the moderator and shakes his hand, upping her warmth meter even higher:
Clinton aimed at increasing her perceived warmth, friendliness, and trustworthiness because she is often criticized for being too “cold.” In the Humans of New York’s Facebook Page, Clinton is quoted as saying:
“I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.’”— Hillary Clinton
While Clinton focused on warming up the crowd, Trump took the opposite approach. His approach was focused on competence and power. First, you saw him do the elbow touch on Clinton, showing who’s boss.
Then he stands powerfully, and shakes the moderator’s hand after Clinton does, sort of as an afterthought. No waving to the crowd, no high warmth cues. This opposite approach to Clinton shows their 2 strategies at play— scripted, but both powerful in their own regards.
And in the end, research in Frontiers in Psychology confirmed that Trump was more effective than Clinton in connecting with the studio audience. In total, the audience cheered or aplaussed 4 times for each candidate— however, Clinton’s applause made the Republicans dislike her even more, while Trump’s applause didn’t have that disliking effect from the Democrats.
Trump was also significantly funnier, making the crowd laugh 14 times compared to Clinton’s 7.
In the upcoming 2020 debate, pay attention to how both Trump and Biden make their grand entrances. Does it look scripted or more natural? Who tries to aim for warmth? Which candidate goes for more competence? How does the audience perceive them?
Analyzing their body language during the grand entrance will help you understand how each candidate will be trying to portray themselves for the rest of the debate.
Research shows that we can tell a lot about someone’s personality simply from their handshake.
In the 2004 Bush vs. Kerry’s debate, Bush does an incredible handshake move that signals trustworthiness to the audience. He shows the palm of his hand:
See how far Bush is from Kerry before reaching out his hand? He makes sure that the audience can see the palm of his hand before Kerry takes it and blocks the view from the audience.
Why is this important?
Showing the palms of the hand shows that he has nothing to hide.
To our primitive minds, showing the palms helps us “relax” since we can visually see that there’s no weapon hiding.
But Kerry knows what’s up. He counters by doing a big power move— a touch on Bush’s forearm. This move is considered a “double touch” and is intended to display dominance and increase rapport… unless it is unwelcome.
And Bush reacts remarkably in an act of defiance— he “yanks” away from Kerry and rushes back to his podium, effectively ending the handshake immediately.
How rude is that!?
At least, it looks like it at first glance. But doing this move was a great idea for Bush because his walking away was a nonverbal “Don’t you dare try to get one-up on me”.
In his previous debate he made the mistake of accepting the “friendly” elbow touch by his opponent. I believe him and his team learned from that experience and wanted to do something different this time around. We’ll get to that next.
Current Score: Bush +4 (serious face, territory claims, palm open, arm yank), Kerry +1 (power touch)
In Bush’s first Presidential debate, Bush made his grand entrance in almost the same way:
- the fast walk in
- going over to the other candidate’s territory
- open palm
It looked great, except for one thing that made his grand entrance end on a weaker note. In this first debate, Al Gore went for the forearm touch as well:
Except this time, Bush had no idea what to do. He turned toward the audience and looked on awkwardly, perhaps waiting for a photo opportunity. He didn’t get one, so he turned his head unconfidently towards Gore one last time before making his retreat back to the podium— almost as if he was a lost child looking to his parent for what to do next.
In that glance, Bush gave away a little of his power.
A bit on the weak side, but I suspect that Bush’s body language strategist told him exactly what to do to avoid this problem before his 2004 Presidential debate with Kerry—a lesson well learned.
On a side note, there is a really interesting phenomenon with incumbent presidents called the “incumbency effect.” This means, from the years 1862 to 2012, over ⅔ of the 23 presidential candidates seeking re-election won.
Researchers found that incumbent candidates have an “edge” over their competitors in terms of speech skills— those who were successful used less negative words and more positive connotations, paid less attention to their competitors, and used a greater variation in word choice. This might be useful to keep in mind for the 2020 debate.
Besides Bush, let’s take a look at another incumbent president, Obama.
In Obama vs. McCain,Obama walked very slowly, showed his open palm before the handshake, and did the elbow-touch power move we’re all familiar with. (+3 points)
But then he turns to the audience, just like Bush did… and gives them a wave.
THIS is what Bush should have done in the 2000 debate instead; here, Obama knew exactly what to do in this situation to show both mutual respect for McCain and demonstrate warmth to the audience.
And it gets even better. McCain waves to the audience right after Obama, as if in afterthought.
This does 2 things:
- It makes McCain look like a copycat. And we don’t like copycats—we want a leader as our president.
- It makes Obama look stronger. Since he waved first, it makes him look like the leader.
Keep in mind that during the upcoming debate, the presidential candidates likely have practiced dozens—if not hundreds—of times and mastered their handshake. What can you find out from their handshakes? Does one try to get the upper hand on the other?
The next thing you want to look at is the first few seconds of a candidate’s answer.
It is sort of the “Gotcha!” moment because you have a chance to see candidates’ true emotions as they think of the right words to say “on the spot” after being asked a question.
Why is it only the first few seconds after being asked a question? Because after those first few seconds, they’ll likely deliver a scripted answer. They have scripted answers for EVERYTHING.
Those first few seconds of a candidate’s response give deep insight on their true feelings of the answer to come.
So let’s have a look at some of those first few seconds, and see what they tell us about the candidate and their answer.
In the 2008 Obama vs. McCain debate, the moderator tosses a question at McCain, asking him if he will vote for the financial recovery plan. In the first few seconds of his response, we get:
- a hard throat clearing
- a “sure” reply, and
- a couple stutters— “I, I, I…” and “but, but…”
WHOA, hold your horses! Does McCain sound confident here? Do you even care about what he says next? Do you think he sounds like a leader here?
Nope, nope, and… nope!
Already, you’ve lost trust and McCain’s credibility plummets when he answers this question. Even though McCain recovers right after and gives his scripted answer, his response is already mangled by the bad impression we got from those critical first few seconds.
On the other hand, a confident candidate usually:
- sounds happy to take a question
- is clear when he or she responds— no vocal fry, no breathiness, no pauses
- might even be smiling
- looks directly at the moderator or camera
The key takeaway here is that the first few seconds are critical to know what a candidate actually feels and thinks about a question. Paying attention to these seconds will let you know whether a candidate is trying to simply look good, or actually feels confident as well.
Next up is listening. You can learn a lot about how candidates want to portray themselves just by seeing how they listen.
For example, candidates know that the camera might go into split-screen mode anytime, where the viewer will be able to see both candidates at the same time:
Again, this split-screen can happen at ANY time, so the candidates know they’re job isn’t to “just listen” to the other candidate’s answer.
There’s a chance they are still being viewed by millions of people at home, so they have to always be “on,” which means they have to use this precious listening time to achieve 1 of 3 things: undermine, support, or take attention away from the person speaking.
|Undermining Cues||These are cues that take away value from the person speaking. Candidates using these cues might sigh, look away, roll their eyes, shake their head in disagreement, or physically distance themselves from the podium.|
|Supporting Cues||These cues make the candidate look positive, as if they also agree with the other candidate’s suggestion or statement. Cues such as nodding, increased eye contact, raised eyebrows, and even verbally saying “yes.”|
|Distraction Cues||Distraction cues signal to the viewer that the other person speaking is boring, and also cues the viewer in that they should also be bored. Touching their clothes, fixing the microphone, sipping on water, and simply looking away at other more “important” things are all ways to undermine the other speaker.|
Here’s an example of a distraction cue that Trump does when Clinton begins to speak:
This is a great move on Trump’s part because it’s hard to pay attention to Clinton with his head movements and drinking water. Plus, viewers might also get thirsty, too, and miss out on Clinton’s talk while they get some water.
Also, did you notice how Trump squints his eyes? He’s effectively doing the same thing Bush did—he raises his lower eyelids, making a nonverbal, “I don’t believe you” when he looks at Clinton.
Clinton, surprisingly, does the opposite. Most of the time when Trump speaks, Clinton looks at Trump and strikes a pose:
Does this remind you of anything? To me, it looks a lot like the “Yes we can” posters from the Obama era.
I believe she was trying to give off a sense of hopeful optimism to the viewer by striking this pose. However, I don’t think it worked because it gave all the attention and power to Trump.
As humans we pay a lot of attention to eye gaze. We like to look where others look. When Clinton looks over at Trump, we turn our attention to him as well.
She gave a lot of respect to Trump, but in effect gave away a lot of her power, too.
You can also see Bush averting his eye contact in the 2004 debate. He spends a ton of time looking down, giving no attention to Kerry at all. This gives us nonverbal signals and makes us think, “Should we be doing something else as well?”
And the few times he does look up at Kerry, we give him our full attention. He even uses the furrowed brow, which is a subtle anger microexpression, and makes us think we should be angry when listening to Kerry, too.
When Trump and Biden get on stage, Trump will most likely use the same distraction or undermining cues against Biden. Paying close attention to how each one of the candidates listen will show you how they want viewers to perceive them as.
You’ll notice when a lot of candidates are giving their scripted answers, they’ll talk pretty nonchalantly and matter-of-factly. But when they get really excited or heated, they’ll bring in the hand gestures.
Many hand gestures are natural and spontaneous, and tell what a candidate really feels.
Back in the Obama era, there was even a little rumor flying about that Obama was a natural pointer. Since this is one of the rudest hand gestures (nobody likes being pointed at!), he was advised to correct it and bring his pointer finger in. This resulted in more of a fist-like gesture:
The fist, unlike the pointing finger, is a gesture we usually love. It indicates grit and power, and that a candidate is going to fight for us until there is no more fighting spirit left in him. You can also see a little bit of the thumb pointing up, which is a subtle gesture that increases likability.
Some presidential candidates— especially Trump— use unique hand gestures. We love to see a unique gesture, just as we like to see unique drawings, hear unique songs, and eat unique food. It gives us a boost of dopamine just because they’re so interesting to see:
Here, you can see Trump using a “small” gesture with his hands to indicate something, well, small. But the key here is that he uses it right after he says “Secretary Clinton”— he’s effectively calling her a small, pesky annoyance using this gesture.
On the other hand, when he refers to himself, Trump has wide, sweeping gestures that indicate grandiosity and importance:
We analyzed thousands of hours of hand gestures and found the ones that were most influential and used by leaders. To get a better idea, you can head over to our article here:
There are so many body language cues to look out for, but if you want to go above-and-beyond, I’ve compiled a nifty list of important body language gestures to look out for during the debate.
|Double Handshake||A handshake that includes both hands, with both hands surrounding the other person’s hand, indicates that the person wants to dominate the other candidate or be seen as more powerful.|
|Squint||Squinting indicates tension. It can mean the candidate is thinking, angry, or anxious in response to another candidate’s question or response.|
|Deep Swallow||Swallowing deeply can be seen easily with a jump in the Adam’s apple—or in the case of some older people, with a jump in the wrinkled skin covering the throat area. Because anxiety dries the mouth, a deep swallow can mean the candidate is anxious or nervous about a situation.|
|Throat Clearing||Throat clearing can mean anxiety or uncertainty if done before answering a tough question. If a candidate clears his throat during the other candidate’s speaking turn, it can indicate disagreement or a desire to interrupt their talking turn.|
|Face Touch||Touching the face indicates nervousness, or the candidate needs a little bit of extra comfort during the debate. Face touching can mean tension or anxiety, especially if it comes right after being asked a difficult question or if the other candidate has a strong counterargument.|
|Thumbs Up Gesture||A universal sign of approval, the thumbs up is used to gain likability and conjures up positive emotions in the viewer.|
|Touching the Arm||If a candidate uses their hand and touches the opposite arm, this can be a self-soothing gesture and caused by anxiety.|
|Neck Scratching||Whether it’s rubbing the front, side, or back of the neck— or even simply touching it— neck touching usually indicates a desire to self-comfort. It’s likely candidates will avoid touching their necks at all costs, but if you see this sign, it usually means high stress.|
|Tight Lips||You might see this one a lot— when someone disagrees with what is being said, a candidate may tighten his lips so that parts disappear.|
|Raised Eyebrows||Part of the surprise microexpression, this may indicate that a candidate is unprepared or surprised when answering a question. They might also do this when surprised about another candidate’s answer. They may also raise their eyebrows as a natural warmth cue to the crowd, kind of as a nonverbal, “look at me!”|
|Filler Sounds||Uses of “ahh,” “hmm,” “umm,” and even coughing can indicate hesitation and uncertainty.|
|Scrunched Nose||If you see the nose go up and wrinkles form between the nostrils and eyes, this indicates disgust. A candidate may subconsciously show this when hearing the other candidate state an opinion that they highly disagree with.|
|Space Between Thumb and Index Finger||When using hand gestures, the amount of space between the thumb and index finger generally indicates a person’s level of confidence. The wider the gap, the higher the confidence.|
Remember, there are many body language cues you might be able to spot during the debate. I made a longer list of important cues to look for in the watch guide (make sure to download it below!).
For a more comprehensive look at body language, you can check out our master guide on body language here:
Bonus: Kamala Harris’ Body Language
On August 11, Joe Biden picked Senator Kamala Harris to be his vice presidential running mate. While American sentiments were divided about this decision, did you know the media might have played a big role in influencing our perceptions?
I examined photos of Kamala Harris from 2 of America’s leading news sources— Fox News and The New York Times— to find out how the media is using body language to change our views.
Resources & More
You can find the videos to all the debates here:
- Trump vs. Clinton 2016:
- Romney vs. Obama 2012:
- McCain vs. Obama 2008:
- Bush vs. Kerry 2004:
- Bush vs. Gore 2000:
Did you learn something from this post? Analyzing body language can be a great way to know what Trump or Biden is really thinking in the next Presidential debate, regardless of what they say. If you’re interested in learning more, you can check out last year’s post I made about how our brains affect the way we vote.
I hope you’re excited as I am for this next debate!
Please make sure to download the Watch Guide and follow along! I’ll update this post right after the debate with my own personal observations and analysis.