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."

As for the most widely publicized governor's contest in the nation, Khoury is calling the California race for Jerry Brown.

"We called for California for Brown over Whitman on the 29th of September," Khoury says, after the first televised debate on September 28. "We knew the polls would turn that way based on nonverbal communication the same way it did in Connecticut. Insincere facial expressions were huge on Whitman. Oscillating her hands, hand wringing, insincere facial expression...these were the three big things that did Whitman in."

"On the other hand, Brown avoided all the negative. He showed his palms, used humor, and used specific illustrators when listing his points. He even put his hand to his chest in a "from the heart" motion more than Whitman did," Khoury says.

Polls have concurred: While Whitman held a single-digit edge over Brown in early September, Brown opened up a lead later that month and has maintained it since the debate Khoury analyzed.

Political journalists and commentators should hesitate, however, before calling elections based entirely on static criteria of body language. "There isn't necessarily a set criteria of 'positive' vs. 'negative' body language," says Sari de la Motte, founder and CEO of Nonverbal Solutions, a consulting group based in Portland, Oregon. "It's entirely situational. There's a time to have a stiff posture, palms up, palms down. Charisma and energy are for communicating your persona; stiffness and control for relating policy points. If I'm engaging voters on the campaign trail, I'll sometimes want to lean forward and nod, etc. If I want to relate policy points during a town hall, I want to use my credible position as a person."

A good politician, says de la Motte, not only knows how to do both, but knows when each is appropriate and can transition smoothly between the two. "If a politician can be nonverbally intelligent -- meaning they're not only aware of the message their body is sending but can alter their performance in appropriate situations -- that person may be more successful. If you're doing this to try to manipulate people by projecting the same persona all the time, you'll come off as inauthentic and voters will notice. There has to be a congruency between what politicians are saying and how they're making voters feel."

Khoury and de la Motte both emphasize the feelings that resonate with voters as critical to political success, with nonverbal communication as the crucial way of projecting a positive image. Elections aren't merely about the best talking points, but rather what de la Motte describes as "likeability and vibe."

"In many cases, it all comes down to a gut feeling about someone," concludes Khoury. "It comes to: who makes you feel right?"