Body Language Redux: Scoring The Midterms

The week before the midterm elections, I spoke with Don Khoury about the role of body language and other forms of nonverbal communications in determining the success of candidates at the polls. Khoury scores the performance of candidates in debates in the run-up to Election Day, posting his predictions on Body Language TV months before regular pollsters have statistically predicted winners.


I called Khoury this week to follow up on his predictions. Basing his picks entirely on the body language of candidates, Khoury had a 95% success rate: out of the 37 gubernatorial races he tracked, Khoury missed only two.

I asked Khoury about his methodology. "We looked at presidential debates in history and we developed a scoring system," he says. "We refined it by watching 100 gubernatorial races over the past 10 years. We knew we were going to do well, but we didn't know how well. While we've tested our predictions against races in the past, this is the first cycle where we've made predictions long before Election Day. In past cycles we've watched the debates on CSPAN and then checked afterwards. This was the first time I was making public predictions. I did call the Massachusetts special election for Scott Brown to my friends; everyone thought I was crazy."

So what were the common trends in nonverbal communication among the victors of this election cycle? Khoury identified a few overarching trends, namely the use of decisive body language.

"Winners this year were doing more definite  "this is the way this is" gestures: more chopping of the hands, more decisive movements," says Khoury. "A two-to-one ratio of winners used more illustrators hand gestures than winners. Voters want specifics, especially right now with the economy, jobs, employment rate. They want to hear a specific, definite message, and that message is accentuated and amplified by body language."

Losing candidates did not convey the same sense of certainty. "On a three-to-one ratio, losing candidates oscillated more with their hands," Khoury tells me. "They were more frantic, wringing their hands more or swaying while they spoke, hesitating in their speech, using rapid, jerking movements, or licking their lips. These movements all express fear, anxiety, or uncertainty, and voters don't want that."

Khoury called his races far in advance, relying only on the performance of candidates in debates. His earliest pick was in Massachusetts on September 9th, calling the race for incumbent governor Deval Patrick. His latest was October 28th in South Dakota, in favor of Democrat Dennis Daugaard. Both candidates won. Khoury would also change his calls based on the performance of candidates over time. In Hawaii, Khoury initially called the gubernatorial race for Republican James Aiona, but switched to Democrat Neil Abercrombie due to his performance in later debates. "The Democrat actually did much better in subsequent debates," says Khoury. "'I've never seen such a stark difference in performance as in Hawaii. It was almost as if they switched bodies."

The races in Oregon and Connecticut represent the limits of relying entirely on nonverbal communication. "The Oregon gubernatorial race only had one debate, in September, which wasn't really enough to make a thorough assessment," says Khoury. "The candidates couldn't negotiate another debate. Instead, they each had a half hour video interview on NBC, but not in the same room. Sure, the interviews were filmed live, in front of an audience, but the pressure that comes with a debating your opponent wasn't present."

In Connecticut, Khoury called the gubernatorial race in favor of Republican Tom Foley after the first debate in September, even though he was 10 points behind the polls. While the gap in the polls between Foley and Democrat Dan Malloy narrowed in the weeks leading up to the election, voting irregularities -- primarily in the form of ballot shortages and late closing in Bridgeport --  left the results of the election ambiguous, despite Malloy being declared the victor. "We called it when he was 10 points behind, and it took a week to decide the election, it was that close," emphasized Khoury. "If voting irregularities had been corrected, Foley might've won, although there's no way to know for sure."

Regardless of his impressive success rate, Khoury emphasizes that his system isn't perfect. "The two best debaters this cycle were Deval Patrick in Massachusetts and Tom Foley in Connecticut, and we lost on Foley. It was the such a striking difference between him and Malloy, and I'm still trying to figure that one out."
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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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