The governor was manic and the president was, well, presidential during Wednesday night’s donnybrook in Denver.
“All in all, Barack Obama was measured and cool, nonverbally, while Mitt Romney was aggressive, interrupting, and speaking over the host many times,” said Gonzaga University anthropologist David B. Givens, who analyzed the candidates’ visual cues at the request of The Daily Beast.
Obama and Romney unpacked thousands of words and dozens of practiced arguments during their first one-on-one at the University of Denver. But for the tens of millions of voters watching at home, what the candidates said might have been less important than how they looked while they were saying it.
No less an authority than former Vermont governor Howard Dean, a top-tier candidate during the 2004 Democratic primary campaign, said on ABC’s Sunday show This Week With George Stephanopoulos: “The key to a debate, if you want to see how it moves the American people, is to turn off the sound, watch the mannerisms. It’s not what they say. I mean, there may be a zinger and that could change things, but—it’s not what they say. It is their mannerisms. It’s how they come across.”
So we asked Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Wash., who has been scrutinizing the body language of televised debates since 1988, to describe the candidates’ mannerisms moment by moment. Here, using capitalized terms from his book, The Nonverbal Dictionary, and his expertise in primate social behavior, is what Givens saw:
9:03 p.m. “Nice greeting on stage, they touched each other. Better than just shaking hands. Sincere.”
9:05 p.m. “Obama shows an endearing HEAD-TILT-SIDE to Romney’s vertically held head.”
9:15 p.m. “Romney shows a smirky, strained, sardonic smile as Obama speaks. This is practiced and intentional.”
9:18 p.m. “Obama uses GAZE-DOWN cue as Romney goes on about taxes. Disagrees.”
9:19 p.m. “Obama uses authoritative PALM-DOWN gesture, and John F. Kennedy’s thumb-over-fist cue. Authoritative.”
9:22 p.m. “Obama uses COMPRESSED-LIPS cue. Disagrees.”
9:24 p.m.: “Romney talks over, interrupts host. Aggressive.”
9:28 p.m. “Romney talks in manic fashion. Central nervous system overly aroused. TONE OF VOICE.”
9:34 p.m. “Romney stares Obama down. Aggressive. Romney uses PALM-DOWN cue. Assertive. Romney uses COMPRESSED-LIPS cue. Disagrees.”
9:39 p.m. “Obama angry at Romney, who seems aggressive and manic, simultaneously.”
9:45 p.m. “Romney gives TONGUE-SHOW cue with Obama’s statement about vouchers.”
9:49 p.m. “Romney seems nervous, visually monitoring and ‘checking’ Obama as he speaks. Romney talks over, interrupts host again. Aggressive.”
9:51 p.m. “Romney uses PALM-DOWN gesture. Aggressive.”
9:52 p.m. “Romney talks over host again. Aggressive.”
9:53 p.m. “Obama gives measured response. No aggression. Romney gives TONGUE-SHOW as he disagrees.”
9:54 p.m. “Obama gives PALM-UP cue. Friendly.”
9:55 p.m. “Romney gives BROW-RAISE for emphasis to words.”
10:02 p.m. “Obama gives LIP-COMPRESSION to disagree with Romney’s statement.”
10:04 p.m. “Romney shows Dan Quayle’s ADAMS-APPLE-JUMP as Obama talks about Obamacare. Fear.”
10:05 p.m. “Romney highly aroused emotionally. Shows disagreement with kinetic head movements.”
10:09 p.m. “Romney touches face (SELF-TOUCH) as Obama dissects R’s tax plan. Anxious.”
10:22 p.m. “Obama uses PALM-DOWN cue to drive home speaking point. Assertive, given nonaggressive tone of voice.”
10:22 p.m. “Obama averts gaze (CUT-OFF) as he disagrees with Romney.”
10:22 p.m. “Obama doesn’t speak over host. Accommodating.”
10:25 p.m. “Romney hyperactive nonverbally. Way too much caffeine?”
10:26 p.m. “Romney’s hyperactive HEAD-NODS. Way aggressive, like Benito Mussolini.”
We’ll have to wait for the opinion polls and focus groups, but for now it looks like nice guys finish first.