Table of Contents
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.
To skip straight to the 2020 presidential debate analysis, click here.
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.
Personality and Body Movement
Researchers from the University of Vienna studied body motion and how it relates to the Big 5 personality traits. Real politicians’ speeches were animated into stick figures and were given to participants to rate.
The figures whose body movements were rated high on dominance and extraversion, and low on agreeableness also received the most applause from the speech’s audience.
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.
Does Humor Help Politicians?
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 applauded 4 times for each candidate—however, Clinton’s applause made the Republicans dislike her even more, while Trump’s applause, on the other hand, did not 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 that might appear in any 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.|
For a more comprehensive look at body language, you can check out our master guide on body language here:
The 2020 Presidential Debate
Now that the 2020 debate is over, let’s take a deep dive into the body language of President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden!
For this analysis, I analyzed their general body language as well as a chronological timeline with important body language cues I noticed. Let’s take a closer look.
The Grand Entrance
President Trump, as he walks on, poses for the cameras and flashes a grin to the audience:
He also super-slow walks onto the stage, taking up a lot of presence.
Biden takes the opposite approach by quickly arriving to his podium, giving an open palms gesture with an eyebrow raise, followed by closed fists:
The open palms gesture is a warm welcoming gesture to Trump, showing sincerity. His closed fists immediately afterwards signals readiness as he “heads into battle.”
They also assume their own unique stances at the podium, with Trump’s arms outstretched and Biden with his arms closer to his body.
Perhaps these 2 stances are a good symbol of what’s to come, as Trump takes an aggressive strategy, while Biden takes a more humble approach.
Trump and Biden use 2 different strategies when listening.
Biden often avoids making eye contact, instead looking down at his notes or directly at the camera:
Looking down is usually seen as negative—especially with his eyes closed—but it also looks as if he’s giving Trump a nonverbal dismissal by not paying attention. Trump is going more “by the seat of his pants” and so he doesn’t take as many notes. It makes him look more positive.
Biden also disagrees with Trump by flashing a smile and shaking his head:
This signals to the audience that he doesn’t take Trump’s words seriously, and also isn’t too emotionally affected by his words.
Trump uses a different tactic. His head is raised high in confidence as he looks attentively at Biden:
I think this looks similar to Hillary’s pose in the last debate, however the biggest differences here are Trump’s angry eyebrows and downturned mouth. Trump also avoids looking at the camera most of the time, and instead pays more attention to Biden and the moderator.
You’ll also see Trump’s aggressive strategy at play here when he disagrees with Biden by interrupting and disregarding the moderator’s plea to give Biden time to speak.
Another interesting thing to note is throughout the debate, Donald Trump used simpler language than Biden. This is consistent with a study that analyzed 381,609 speeches given by politicians from five parliaments, which found that liberal politicians used more complex words than conversative ones.
Hand gestures are very normal for both candidates, however you’ll notice a few interesting tidbits.
In this debate, Biden often gestures with a pen in his hand. He switches a lot from pen-gesturing and empty hands, so it’s likely he does this subconsciously. It’s a small detail, but I think it shows more seriousness and signals his preparedness:
You might also notice pointing from both candidates, but more from Biden:
In this section, I added some notable cues of interest for the debate in chronological order. Feel free to follow along with this C-Span video with the time markers below!
30 minutes: When Trump first starts speaking, he quietly mutters “thank you very much”, almost as if whispering. This is different than Biden’s vocal words of appreciation as he begins speaking (more on that below).
31-32 minutes: In Trump’s turn, you’ll see Biden silently laughing while Trump is giving his answer. You’ll see him do this a few times throughout the debate, but Trump doesn’t laugh and plays a more aggressive strategy.
34 minutes: One tool Biden uses is the “look and look away” strategy. He looks at Trump, but as soon as Trump says something he disagrees with, he looks away to the moderator in dismissal. Biden’s lack of eye contact makes Trump’s words seem a little less impactful:
Biden makes his thank you to the moderator more clear and longer. Trump also gives a clear contempt microexpression when Biden says Trump wants to get rid of the affordable care act:
41 minutes: When the moderator asks Trump to let Biden finish, he gives a crooked smile and sticks out his tongue, as if to say, “Gotcha! I finally got shut down”:
42 minutes: Interesting disagreement tactics.Trump disagrees with anger and interruptions Biden disagrees with laughs and head shakes no. Neither is right or wrong, but VERY different approach.
Biden also looks straight at the camera while Trump continues to talk to Biden.
44 minutes: Biden looks directly at the camera again and urges the viewers to vote. This is a great emotional appeal to the audience at home.
47 minutes: Trump smiles with contempt many times during this minute. I counted at least 3.
48 minutes: Biden’s head shake increases here. He shakes his head 3 times, often coupled with smiles:
Smiles coupled with head shakes from Biden often indicate disbelief, almost as if saying “I can’t believe you just said that, you are so wrong!”
49 minutes: Trump points back at Biden, while gestures with his hand to his chest. This is a sincere gesture, indicating that Trump is trying to show honesty when he talks about the media giving him bad press while giving Biden good press:
Biden also does a lot of rapid eye blinking when he says, “I know how to do the job. I know how to get the job done.” This is indicative of stress or possibly a lack of confidence in what he’s saying.
58 minutes: Biden raises his eyebrows in a surprise gesture when he realizes the moderator is asking him about masks and not businesses:
When Trump says that other people said masks did not help, Biden lowers his eyebrows in anger:
1 hour 3 minutes: Biden does another eye flutter as he stutters his words.
1 hour 9 minutes: Trump does the “fly swatter” gesture with a contempt microexpression, nonverbally saying to Biden, “That’s nothing!”
1 hour 10 minutes: Here you can see Biden eye blocking when he makes a mistake in saying “fortune 500 companies.” Eye blocking is a typical behavior that shows he made a mistake and wants to “erase” it from his mind or have a do-over. Luckily, this mistake wasn’t a big one.
1 hour 15 minutes: Biden does the double point to the camera, saying this is about “you.”
1 hour 18 minutes: Biden’s hand again turns into a power fist, similar to Obama’s signature hand gesture:
1 hour 38 minutes: Biden raises his voice in anger when addressing accusations towards his son from Trump. He also turns towards Trump and points a finger at him:
Other Note: Did you notice how Biden repeatedly called Trump a “clown”? Trump did it in the last debate with “crooked Hillary,” and I think Biden did the same in this debate.
Non-important note: Have you noticed that no one has taken a drink of water? I am thirsty for them!
How did they do? I think both candidates played different strategies, especially with their body language, and there was no clear in this debate. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
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, 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.