What are the body language lessons from the CNN Republican debates? First of all, they went on too long. The human body has trouble sitting for so long. I even felt sorry for the candidates standing for three hours under the lights.

I watched both debates in their entirety, which means I was glued to CNN for more than 5 hours. OK for a political junkie, but hardly a way for a sane person to spend the evening. I understand that, with eleven participants, the second, prime-time debate required lots of time so that everyone could get a word in, but still. Too. Long.

Of course, it’s a temporary problem. The second tier folks are discovering that it’s no fun being second tier, and they’re beginning to drop out. No doubt more will follow. (Scott Walker just did.) And in the main tier, they’ll soon start cutting deals, endorsing each other, and becoming the latest V-P rumor.

That’s politics.

But until we’re down to real contenders and serious debating, we have this verbal barn dance, this oratorical free-for-all, this hootenanny of hortation. And as such, it’s a fascinating place to watch the body language of people trying to dominate one another. What are the takeaways? (I also reviewed the debate for CNN – here’s the clip.)

1.It pays to stand out. The standout performance of the night was Carly Fiorina’s. She didn’t give a non-verbal inch, she didn’t back down. She was tough, her answers were short and smart, and she barely cracked a smile. If the question was, is Carly Fiorina tough enough to dominate a room?, the answer was yes. The constant affirming head-nodding really helped her case. Smart (and subtle) body language move.

If the question is, do we trust her?, the longer-term answer is more complicated. In the short run, we look for consistency between body language and words to substitute for trust, since trust takes longer to establish and it’s a more difficult question to answer. In the long run, the chances for a slipup are harder to avoid, and the issue of likeability comes into play as well.

So Fiorina will have to figure out how to warm up her persona if she makes it to the second phase of the campaign. She’ll need to start smiling more. But for now, her approach is working well.

2.It pays to look good. Senator Rubio may be the perfect candidate for TV. His good looks, earnest demeanor, and willingness to crack the occasional smile and even joke, serve him well — mostly. But his joke about the water bottle fell flat in the room, and a fresh face won’t keep fickle voters’ attentions for long if he doesn’t have something fresh to say. And his message so far lacks either the uninformed outsider randomness of a Trump or the concise, no-nonsense outsider toughness of a Fiorina. His very smoothness, gestural language, and polish make him look more like an insider in an election cycle that seems so far to be all about outsiders.

For example, he uses the standard politician’s thumb-and-forefinger gesture that President Clinton developed so as not to be jabbing his forefinger at his audiences (we hate the admonishing forefinger). Problem is, it’s a fake, not a real, gesture, and it shrieks “politician!” to anyone who sees it.

So will he survive? I’m betting yes, but I’m not sure that his views will be enough to keep him in the front ranks.

3.It pays to have billions. And then there’s Mr. Trump. He was attacked more confidently by everyone else, and they drew blood. The surprise of his first debate was gone, and so he looked less. . . presidential. . . this time out. And less invulnerable. But his confidence was still high and his facial gyrations still stole the show. Even when he wasn’t speaking the camera couldn’t resist going to him on a split screen.

So will Mr. Trump need to develop actual policies, or will his incredible dominance of a room be enough? I’m betting no – that this summer marked the high water mark of the Trump campaign – but on body language alone he is still the alpha force to be reckoned with. I’m ready to be surprised yet again by Mr. Trump.

4.It pays to be from New Jersey. Chris Christie also had a good debate. His comfort level with argumentative colleagues is high, thanks to his wrangling with New Jersey Democrats, and he was probably the least intimidated the first time out by Mr. Trump. And once again on the Reagan Library stage he held his own. He’s comfortable at the podium (he leans on it like he owns it, and he’s telling you a secret), his anger is charismatic, and he can crack a good joke when he needs to.

So can Governor Christie break out of the second tier of front runners? I wouldn’t bet on it. The other personalities are too big, or their stories too compelling as outsiders, to admit a governor, even one as ready to rumble as New Jersey’s Christie. But the odds are pretty even.

5.It doesn’t pay to be a Bush. At least not yet. And where was our frontrunner Governor Bush in the midst of all this political exotica? He had a better debate in terms of body language. He showed real emotions a couple of times – when Mr. Trump picked on his brother, for example – but he still deferred to Trump in the end (accepting his “low five” eagerly looked weak). His problem is that he’s an instinctive conciliator and connector. That has served him well as a Governor, and as a politician trying to build bridges between peoples, but it doesn’t serve him well in the schoolyard brawl that is going on right now in the Republican debate season.

So can Mr. Bush survive these early bloodlettings and remain in the race? In terms of body language, he’s a goner. But there’s that other thing that I’m not expert in, but that they tell me is important in politics: money. And in that, he’s apparently doing just fine. So I’ll buy the conventional wisdom on this one and say Governor Bush will survive these early rounds.

If the Republican nomination process were decided today on body language alone, we’d have a Fiorina-Rubio ticket, with Trump and Christie as putative Global Fixer and Secretary of State or something.

Stay tuned. One of the really interesting things about having such a large group of contenders on TV debating is that we will find out how important body language, visual appearance, and so-called TV debating really are to the modern political process.

I’m glued to my TV.


  1. Nick,
    Good post.
    I agree with your assessment of the CNN GOP debate.

    One thing I will add is that though Rubio and Fiorina scored well on the debating style, I don’t think they did well on being authentic. There is some phoniness I sensed in them as I sensed with Walker and Jindal.

    The candidates, though not good debaters, but did well on authenticity are Trump, Christie, Kasich, Santorum and Graham.

    We will see what will win out at the end: excellent debating skills or authenticity. I would place my bet on authenticity.

    On the Dem side, Hillary is going to do well in debates but her problem is authenticity where Sanders has the edge.

    I believe it is easier to fix your debating performance quickly, but not your authenticity.

    Would live your thoughts on this.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jay. I would agree with your analysis on the authenticity v strong debaters, but I think the more fundamental question viewers/voters ask is first, “Do I trust this person? and then, “Do I trust this person to run the country?” That’s a complicated mix of authenticity and strength. As I said, trust is assessed by consistency in the short run, because that’s an easier question to answer. So the most important thing a candidate has to do, at least at first, is be consistent in body language and content. In other words, when they say they’re angry, does their body language support that anger, or something else?

    2. All I have to say is Wow Carly! This lady came from 2% to 15% in just 48 hours. Take it this way: if this lady continues to command these debates and the national stage you better get used to say Madam President Fiorina. Especially when there is one debate just before every primary contest going into Super Tuesday. Take it to the bank, the next debate will be all about her(and Trump to some extend). So far she is unbeatable on stage, gaffes-free and in total control of the media. Total control of social conservative issues and strong foreign policy. Trump has been mortally wounded and it is safe to say that, unless Fiorina makes a mistake(very unlikely at this point) she will finish him up in the next debate. If she keeps her hold on Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina(like polls show), she can afford losing Florida to Rubio(or Bush), to come back strong in Michigan and Ohio, and California might be hers for the taking comes November 2016. A dream ticket Fiorina/Rubio looks very probable day by day.

  2. For millions, Trump is the freshest breath of air since populist-iconoclast billionaire Ross Perot stole America’s hearts (and quickly lost them) in 1992, but I agree that Trump has probably reached his peak popularity and will see his Q rating undergo a long slow slide in the closing months of 2015. While the camera certainly loves him, Trump is surprisingly inarticulate when he strays from his bumper-sticker bromides. “I’ll get along with Putin” and “I’ll force China to be fair” does not a foreign policy make, and I’m beginning to suspect that, behind all that bluster, Trump does not have the discipline to buckle down and get a solid schooling on dozens of highly complex issues. My prediction is death by a thousand cuts, most caused by his random rants and cutting personal insults that make him look anything but presidential. The “finger on the nuclear button” issue raised at the debate reminds me of the same doubts swirling around Goldwater in 1964. It might be a cheap shot, but it’s a nagging cheap shot that lingers and lingers in the back of the mind.

    I agree, Nick: Fiorina and Rubio had a strong night. Fiorina’s challenge is twofold: Proving she’s tougher and more respected than the GOP’s alpha males, and proving she’s more compassionate and likable too. A tall order. Rubio might just pull it off.

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