Can Body Language Predict Elections?

In 1960, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy Jr. appeared in the first televised presidential debate in American history. Nixon, recovering from a knee injury, appeared unshaven, pale, and sickly. In contrast, Kennedy appeared well rested and confident. Nixon later wrote: "I had never seen him looking so fit." An estimated 70 million viewers tuned in to watch the first debate. While the television audience overwhelmingly believed Kennedy was victorious, radio listeners believed Nixon had won.

The Nixon-Kennedy debate is a popular anecdote for the power of self-presentation in influencing voters during an election cycle. For some analysts, body language and non-verbal communication are some of the most important factors in determining who comes out on top on Election Day.

Don Khoury, a nonverbal communication consultant in Boston, runs Body Language TV, a website dedicated to scoring electoral debates. "We've been following as many gubernatorial elections as we can," Khoury says. "We believe that our predictions will ring true. We're hoping that we can beat the national polling firms." Khoury and his team have scored hundred of U.S. gubernatorial debates since 2000. The Body Language TV team focuses primarily on gubernatorial debates, as Khoury explains, because senatorial and congressional debates lack the same television exposure and therefore provide fewer opportunities for the electorate to visually evaluate candidates. [Disclosure: Khoury occasionally provides analysis for my father, Jon Keller, a political analyst for CBS4 in Boston.]

He explains that, in a debate setting, most people judge politicians based on how they make them feel rather than on their talking points. "Candidates want to appear calm and focused rather than hyper and disorganized," Khoury tells me. "One of the things that's come true in the debates we've watched -- we watch for 'positive debate gesturing,' things people are trained to do in debates -- is that the greater indicator of success is the least amount of negative body language, body language that conveys arrogance, insincerity, or low confidence. Covering one's crotch, swaying, or other types of defensive body language implies vulnerability. This includes hyper blinking, fake smiles. Rapid jerking motions, hand-wringing." Making voters uncomfortable -- or appearing detached -- can ruin a politician's image, costing them valuable votes on Election Day.

Khoury uses Deval Patrick, incumbent governor of Massachusetts, as an example of the impact of positive body language on an otherwise unpopular candidate. While Patrick's approval rating dropped steadily after his election in 2006, recent polls project an 82% chance of victory. "His shoulders were relaxed, projecting calmness," explains Khoury. "His vocal pitch and tone do not go up or down. He gestures, but when he does, his hands are always below his shoulders. Despite his low approval rating, his body language will lead to a victory."

Such predictions based entirely on nonverbal communication often fly in the face of polling. In Connecticut's gubernatorial race, he anticipates Republican Tom Foley will best Democrat Dan Malloy, despite the 4.8 percent lead Malloy enjoys in an average of major polls. In Oregon, Khoury predicts Republican Chris Dudley will win the governor's mansion, while FiveThirtyEight indicates a 57.9% chance of victory for Democrat John Kitzhaber.

Body language can often lead to idiosyncratic results, Khoury says. "If you look at Maine, where neither candidate performs very well in debates, an independent is able to pop up and affect things," Khoury tells me, referring to Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, who is projected to capture 19.2% of the vote on Election Day. "The Republican candidate will probably beat the Democrat, but the Independent candidate is coming up because of the cracks in body language."

Presented by

Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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