As a political junkie, I’ve been following the debates avidly, and commenting on them for CNN, Forbes, and Business Insider. It has been a feast for body language fans, with over 10 hours of debate time and plenty of hits and misses. Following are my ten lessons for anyone trying to succeed in this high-stakes game.
10. Mr. Trump is a game-changer. Let’s begin with the obvious. Whether you love him or hate him, Donald Trump has changed the political world – at least for now. The first Republican debate, on Fox, saw him sucking all the air out of the room, with his outsized personality, his alpha-male dominance, and his mugging for the camera when he wasn’t speaking. He got more air time than anyone else talking, and if you add up the times the camera cut away to his facial gesturing, the rest of the candidates hardly showed up in Round One.
Will his new politics of outrageous statements, emotional outbursts, and happy slaughtering of previously sacred cows actually work in the long run? We don’t know yet, but the political pundits are already starting to shift, and are opening up to the possibility that it just might work.
What is the message to all the other politicians in the fight?
9. Candidates need to learn to be “authentic” fast – or die. I put authentic in quotes, because it’s not possible to know the real truth of Mr. Trump’s opinions. Is he really such a misogynist? Does he really hate Mexicans? I have no idea, but he’s convincing when he says so – meaning there’s no apparent conflict between body language and content. If he’s pretending, he’s a good enough actor to pull it off.
But with his blunt opinions, Mr. Trump raises the game for everyone. If you can’t find something to be “authentic” about, you simply have no chance in this election cycle. The traditional political instinct to make nice, avoid alienating people, and making only a few strategic enemies looks too calculating next to Mr. Trump’s broadsides. And the political pros who don’t know how to play this new game of emotional openness are dropping by the wayside fast.
8. There’s no longer any room for a Jimmy Stewart. Lincoln Chafee is perhaps the last example we will see of a genuinely nice guy offered up on the altar of strong, negative opinions. And look how long his campaign survived. In this election cycle, nice is not going to cut it. Anger is practically equated with honesty. Did you notice that a good deal of Mrs. Clinton’s debate kudos came from her several moments of “authentic” anger?
There’s an interesting discrepancy between Americans calling for an end to the dysfunction in Washington and the fact that the only candidates who are doing well are polarizing figures. If we carry that logic to its inevitable conclusion, ladies and gentleman, we will increase, not decrease, the divisions once the campaign is over. Just saying.
7. There is room for tough. The candidates who have done well for themselves in this first debating round have been the ones that have displayed varying forms of toughness. Trump, Fiorina, Clinton, Sanders – they’ve all passed the test by standing up to real or imaginary bullies and holding their ground. Carson is an interesting exception – his first debate performance approached near-invisibility, but he has survived and continues to appeal with his Trump-like “authenticity.”
6. Openness is the body language secret weapon. I work with clients regularly to help them open up their body language. It’s difficult to do in front of an audience that wants you to succeed. Imagine how hard it is in front of an audience at least half of whom wants you to self-immolate. The real body language differentiator for the successful candidatesso far has been openness of their facial and hand gestures, but especially their hands. Once again, Trump has practically patented the open-arm, upturned-palm, “so sue me” gesture that says, what you see is what you get. But Sanders is not far behind, yelling at the audience about income inequality with his hands flailing on either side of his body, open like some sort of cranky grandpa who no longer cares what anyone thinks.
Incidentally, in body language terms, the lack of openness was what obliterated Mr. Walker. His gestures never rose above the typical politician’s – self-protecting and self-serving.
5. Trump is the first real television candidate, not Kennedy. The received wisdom in the pundit world is that candidate Kennedy projected his brand of cool, making Nixon look shifty and ill-shaven by comparison, and using the new medium of television to win with style over substance. In fact, there’s a well-known meme that has Nixon winning the debate among people who heard him on the radio.
But Kennedy only realized half the opportunities that TV offers. Television, as Marshall Mcluhan famously noted, craves emotion. And Mr. Trump is the first candidate who, perhaps thanks to his stints on TV before, has learned how to give television what it wants: hot emotion.
If you want to succeed post-Trump, there are only two choices: go big, or go very, very strong. Sanders is going big – the left’s version of Trump. Interestingly, both Fiorina and Clinton have opted to go strong, mostly, keeping their emotions under wraps for different reasons. The exceptions are Mrs. Clinton’s angry moments about Planned Parenthood and Republicans, and those have a good deal to do with our long relationship with the Clinton saga and the question of her emotional openness or lack thereof.
4. The path ahead for candidates who want to survive is clear. The choices are stark for candidates in the coming months. You either figure out how to open up, get emotional in some way and on some subject that works for you, or you put yourself forward as the strong, quiet adult in a room full of children. I do believe either approach could work. But I don’t think, for example, that Mr. Sanders would fare well head-to-head with Mr. Trump, because Trump would simply win the shouting match, the facts, and politesse be dammed.
Someone who could raise an eyebrow and remain quiet – but strong – in Mr. Trump’s company could dispatch him quickly by making him look like a child having a tantrum. To do so, you’d have to come prepared with a few tough, surprising home truths, delivered with force and authenticity. Openness is key – it is simply impossible for politicians used to the old retinue of careful, constructed hand gestures that they’ve used for the past couple of decades to succeed.
3. Focus is essential. The only possible alternative to bluster like Mr. Trump’s is intensity. Ms Fiorina displayed that admirably in her answer to Mr. Trump’s disparaging of her looks. She paused, pursed her lips, and spoke quietly, but with passion. It worked. And her standing in the polls improved.
The challenge is that focus is hard to maintain under the hot lights and with a dozen other candidates on the stage all vying for attention. Making noise like Mr. Trump does is the easier option.
2. It’s coming down to trust, and the shortcut for trust is consistency. So candidates had better be consistent. The electorate is evidently looking for a person it can trust. That isn’t new; electorates have been doing that – and been disappointed – since there have been elections. And because trust is only developed over time, in the short run we use consistency as a stand-in. That’s why playing gotcha is such an endless game in the campaign season. If we can catch our opponent doing something inconsistent, then that’s proof that you can’t trust him or her. End of debate. So it’s imperative for candidates to find their voice and their rants and stick with them. If you appear to change your mind, or waffle, or even display all-too-human uncertainty, you’re toast.
1. But there’s something that everyone has forgotten amidst all this ranting: positive storytelling. We live in an angry age, and ranting against one side or the other has worked well for virtually everyone who’s tried it. But one day the pendulum will swing back, and the opportunity will be there for the candidate who can tell us a real story with a happy ending. We Americans are optimists still, underneath the angst, and the economic despair. The candidate who can show us the way forward to a better future, not just a negative one of fewer enemies (whoever you think the enemy is), will ultimately win.
America can’t succeed by turning off the lights, shutting the door, and pretending that we’re not home. Do we really want the future to knock on someone else’s door? We have to find a way forward that is generous, open, even-handed, and creative. The candidate that can tell us that story will win, if not in this election cycle, then certainly the next one. The future still responds, not to the bitter, but to the bold.