We’ve come to expect surprising things from the Republican debates in terms of body language, from Donald Trump’s dominance of the first one, way back in August, to Governor Kasich’s nervousness to Ben Carson’s quiet sarcasm about not getting many questions. Each of those lessons got turned on its head in the latest CNBC debate last night. What else happened?

1.Donald Trump disappeared. Relatively speaking, Mr. Trump’s performance in terms of body language was restrained and austere. Gone were the oversized dominance and the facial contortions of the first debate, and even the second. Mr. Trump got less air time and when he was speaking, his body language was less alpha male and more equal participant. He still showed up, and a subdued performance from someone like Mr. Trump probably rates as an outsized claim for dominance from anyone else, but the change in body language pyrotechnics was noticeable.

2.Governor Kasich came out swinging. It seemed like most of the air that Mr. Trump conceded was taken up by Governor Kasich. From the start, he was (for him) angry, and strong, vigorously slashing with his right hand as he critiqued the “fantasies” of his rivals in saying they would cut taxes and balance the budget at the same time.

3.Dr. Carson got more airtime but didn’t close the deal. In body language terms, Dr. Carson’s fussy, defensive gesturing is not doing him any favors. He needs to gesture more simply and openly. His quiet voice stands in stark contrast to the passion, complaining, and shouting of his rivals – and to his own self-protective hand gestures. His performance was much stronger than in the first two debates, but is still so gentle compared to his rivals that it’s hard to see voters flocking to him unless it is simply for the contrast.

4.Marco Rubio looked like the grownup in the room. Senator Rubio’s first debate – in body language terms – began nervously and only warmed up slightly. But he found his stride in this debate. He dispensed with Governor Bush’s clumsy attack on his senatorial attendance in a few words and proved the best of the candidates at relating policy in terms that the average voter can understand. He talked about his mother, his drycleaner, and his heritage in ways that made him seem sincere where the others seemed wonky or opportunistic. He’s a rising star in a sky full of shooting ones.

5.Governor Bush probably finished himself off. Debates are sometimes do or die, and this debate may have marked Mr. Bush’s last bow. He looked stiff and ill at ease, his smile didn’t reach his eyes, and he never seemed to connect with his answers – his words and his gestures were out of sync. The result was a weak performance that couldn’t have done his candidacy any good. He’s still got lots of money and support, but if the election were to be decided on body language alone, he’s not in the running.

6 Comments

  1. Nick,

    The person who made the most sense last night was Rand Paul. He answered all the questions without bashing the media or fudging the facts. But there was no mention in the media of this. He, Bush and Carson are too cerebral for this format which does not help them.

    RNC needs to cut the big table debate down to just five candidates so we can pay attention to what these candidates are really saying instead of focusing on their performance bashing media or zingers they have well rehearsed. RNC also needs to get rid of the lectern and let the candidates sit on a chair or a stool. Let them walk around and address the audience. The way they have it now is not that effective.

    1. Hi, Jay —

      Thanks for your content. I was purposefully avoiding (as much as possible) the content debate and focusing on the body language. Looks like you’ve made your choice!

  2. I love your analyses on the debates!

    You probably don’t have time for this, but it might be interesting to get your read on the moderators’ body language. They took a lot of heat for their performance. Did you see any evidence of body language leaking their response to the criticism?

    Just curious. Thanks Nick!

    1. Thanks, Andy! I was watching the debaters, not the moderators, but informally they looked “deer in the headlights” on occasion to me! They covered it well, but the reaction was there.

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