In debates, nonverbal cues can hurt presidential candidates

Often speak volumes to voters

When presidential candidates saying nothing — and everything in debates.
When presidential candidates saying nothing — and everything in debates.

Slouching. Fidgeting. Water-drinking. Face-touching.

The presidential candidates showed the subtle signs of nervousness at Monday evening’s GOP forum — and anxiety levels may well increase at Thursday night’s first presidential primary debate in Cleveland.

In a field of 17 Republican candidates — 10 of whom will gather on the Fox News stage at 9 p.m. — it’s hard for any one contender to pull away from the pack. But if history is any guide for presidential debates, many times candidates stand out for all the wrong reasons — and without saying a word. Sighs, sweat, a glance at a watch: They’ve become prime material for late-night lampooning on talk shows.


They’re also what voters remember most often from the candidates’ precious time on stage when, as on Thursday night, they’ll have less than 12 minutes each to speak. But the candidates all have equal opportunity for screen time during the debate, knowing the camera could flash to them at any moment.

“The twitchiness is seen unconsciously by the viewer/voter as reflecting on the personality [of the candidate],” said Joseph Tecce, a psychology professor at Boston College who studies nonverbal communication. “It can influence the viewer’s vote.”

Political scientists say when presented with a barrage of information — such as the truncated stump speeches and policy positions of 10 candidates packed into two hours — voters often seek other means of evaluating a candidate’s presidential potential. Body language and demeanor — facial expressions, vocal inflections, hand gestures — leave an impression, so candidates are often coached not just on what to say but on how to behave, according to specialists.

“Sometimes, in the heat of a moment, candidates forget these lessons,” said Darrell West, the vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “But that harms them with voters.”

Stumbling while speaking, slumping while sitting, or looking bored doesn’t say strong and effective leader, West said. People, he said, like candidates who are engaged in the discussion and pay attention to what their opponents are saying.


Vice President Al Gore gave audible signals of exasperation in a debate against George W. Bush in 2000.
Vice President Al Gore gave audible signals of exasperation in a debate against George W. Bush in 2000.ED REINKE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Voters picked up on these cues starting with the first televised presidential debate in 1960, when Richard Nixon did not wear makeup and sweated profusely, making him appear tired compared to John F. Kennedy. Most recently, in a 2008 Democratic primary debate, Barack Obama deadpanned to Hillary Clinton, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” He memorably smirked from the corner of his mouth.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush checked his watch during a voter question, making him appear unsympathetic to her personalized inquiry about the national debt. In 2000, his son, George W. Bush, benefited from his foe’s foibles in a debate, where voters took Vice President Al Gore’s loud sighs as a sign of arrogance and impatience.

On Thursday, a third member of the Bush family, former governor Jeb Bush of Florida, will face his own challenge: controlling his reaction to the man next to him on stage, Donald Trump, a boisterous and blunt businessman. Bush will be joined in this challenge by eight other contenders.

Trump did not attend Monday night’s Voters First Presidential Forum at Saint Anselm College. The evening came to a close with no game-changing gaffes — no gross exaggerations, horrendous misstatements, or annoying tics that kill a presidential campaign. But there were moments when some of the 14 candidates had noticeable tells.


The candidates — save three senators who joined the night via satellite from Washington, D.C. — sat together in the front row of the auditorium, where it resembled something like a high school assembly as they listened to their opponents.

Candidates fidgeted and squirmed. Rick Perry, former governor of Texas, occasionally would lean over and whisper into the ear of Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. Camera pans of the audience showed Bush sitting somewhat slumped, awkwardly grabbing the handrail, and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, looking drowsy at points.

Governor John Kasich of Ohio slouched on stage. Former New York governor George Pataki drank lots of water while sitting off stage, pulling out what looked like a crib sheet at one point. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who spoke with one hand curled tightly into a fist for most of the night, whispered to his colleagues sitting next to him.

President George H.W. Bush memorably checked his watch during a voter question in a three-way debate in 1992.
President George H.W. Bush memorably checked his watch during a voter question in a three-way debate in 1992.RON EDMONDS/ASSOCIATEDPRESS

In the final minutes of the forum, Jeb Bush flubbed. He told the audience that his dad, President George H.W. Bush, was “probably the most perfect man alive,” eliciting laughter. Then he started stammering as he talked about a T-shirt at a “Jeb swag store” that says, “My dad’s the greatest man alive. If you don’t like it, I’ll take you outside.” He fidgeted with his tie while he searched for words.

Nonverbal cues will come into sharper focus — and be easier to absorb — as the field narrows, Tecce said. It’s hard to count how many times a minute a candidate blinks or averts a gaze — tells of stress and dishonesty — when you’re looking at 10 sets of eyes, he said.


But voters Monday night said they saw a camaraderie among the candidates, who avoided directly insulting each other and displayed a respectable kinship.

“It’s just a real shame for the country not to see what we saw here tonight,” Shawn Jasper, speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, said as he left Monday night’s forum. “This idea that ‘we don’t have enough time; we can’t be patient enough.’ It’s just ridiculous. We’re choosing the president of the United States. This isn’t a TV show that has to be done within an hour.”

Jasper’s wife, Laurie, said she saw a camaraderie among the candidates that was well appreciated. From their seats inside the auditorium, they could see the candidates as they walked back to their seats.

“They were actually shaking hands and saying ‘good job,’ patting each other. That was really nice to see,” she said. “And, there was no bashing tonight.”

The question becomes: How long does that last?

 Vice President Richard M. Nixon wore no makeup and perspired heavily while debating John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Vice President Richard M. Nixon wore no makeup and perspired heavily while debating John F. Kennedy in 1960.Associated Press

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.