Body language is a critical part of how candidates are perceived by voters, and many candidates invest hours honing how they come across to millions watching on television So ABC News went to three body language experts for their opinions on how each candidate was portraying himself or herself during the debate.
Donald Trump’s frontrunner status in the race for the GOP nomination was beginning to slip as the debate approached. So what can we learn about the brash real estate mogul – even with the volume off?
Joe Navarro: Notice Trump’s emphasis and use of a precision grip as he says that he doesn’t forgive people who let him down. We usually only use that precision grip — index finger to thumb — when we have certainty about one topic or sentiment. Also see that Trump is the only one that touches the microphone, which is a territorial display. It says that everything in front of me is mine — not just the podium, but what’s on the podium.
Janine Driver: Trump once again “keeps it real.” From acting like a little kid mocking Kasich, to “like-what-I’m-saying-right-now” a-okay steeples, to more aggressive palm-down gestures, pointing and chopping, all his moves are all integrated, which means Trump is being authentic. He’s saying we don’t need to second-guess or question if his opinions are genuine.
John Neffinger: Trump brought his signature style, forceful but under control. But he’s not having as much fun as he was in the first debate, the novelty has worn off, and the polls may have rattled him. His gestures are smooth when he’s confident and jerky when he’s agitated, and tonight they were more jerky. He’s also overusing a particularly funny clown face where he pinches the sides of his mouth. Again, tension.
ABC News: Supporters of Ben Carson, who is now leading Trump in Iowa, say they like his thoughtful, deliberate approach. What other signals did Carson send to voters about himself with his body language during tonight’s debate?
Navarro: We tend to gravitate to those who appear in control, measured, deliberate, even-tempered. Dr. Carson is the only speaker to steeple his fingers — touching fingertip to fingertip. It is one of the few signs that we humans have of confidence. Is there a downside to this demeanor? Yes. Someone who takes too long to answer, is too deliberative or seems incapable of quickly answering will in a debate format not come across well.
Driver: Carson’s body movements tend to be more free-flowing then all of the other candidates. For instance, we see non-verbals like a decrease in pressure, which indicates a softer approach to persisting against difficult odds — ultimately a less aggressive way to being determined. Dr. Carson also often kept his hands in an almost-humble-like pose where he puts his right hand on top of his left hand like he’s in church.
Neffinger: Ben Carson’s soft vocal tone, slow pacing and gentle motion suggest not only that he is thoughtful, but that he is calm. That calm confidence has a deep, reassuring appeal. He is not the only person on stage who has not been a professional politician, but he’s the only one who seems like a regular person, someone who might be a neighbor.
ABC News: Jeb Bush came into this debate desperately needing a stand-out performance. After not gaining momentum from his first two debates, how did he do this time around?
Navarro: He didn’t do much nonverbally, except we did not see as much smiling toward Donald Trump as before in other debates. It is through nonverbals and passion that we demonstrate how much we care: it is the exclamation point. Jeb Bush demonstrated little passion for his arguments or beliefs unlike the other candidates, especially those low on the scale. He failed to convince through his nonverbals.
Driver: I feel that Jeb Bush came out looking like he just didn’t want to be there. When the camera scanned to him at the beginning of the debates, Bush’s facial expression appeared nervous. Later, Bush even shook his head “no” when he said that his plan gives the middle-class the biggest break.
Neffinger: Jeb can look great in well-made ads, and he has the money to make them. But he does not appear confident: stooping, wincing and shrugging.
ABC News: After a strong second debate performance catapulted her into contention, Carly Fiorina has begun to slip in the polls. Did she continue her nonverbal success in her second time on the mainstage?
Navarro: She did continue to impress nonverbally in several ways. She has an emphasis that is consistent with her rhetoric in the form of hand, arm and finger gestures. And we also must consider the speed of her responses, which were immediate — indicative of preparation, but also a facile mind.
Driver: Fiorina smiled more and her body movements were more integrated, which sends a message that she seemed to be more in the moment. However, there were a couple dips in her likability or openness, like when her lip disappeared when she was asked should she really be bragging that Perkins is plugging her. When we don’t like what we see or hear, our lips disappear.
Neffinger: Carly projected confidence but not aggression, did not get testy and smiled once or twice. She turned several answers into inspiring red-meat speeches. But she’s basically projecting all strength and control, very little warmth or hope.
- Neffinger: Overall, tonight’s debate was a pretty good showing for the Republican Party. Jeb Bush looked awkward and Rand Paul looked unimpressed — “low energy” as Trump might say — but everyone else looked at least professional, if not quite presidential.
This article is shortened, click on the link below to continue reading the analysis of the other candidates.