If you study Communications in college (or even if you read an occasional news analysis article), you learn that the majority of all information conveyed between human beings is non-verbal. Facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, grooming and dress choices, and emotional state all matter -- sometimes far more than the actual words said. No one understood this better than the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan himself. To a great extent, the last 20-plus years of Republican politics have been the story of trying to recapture the Reagan magic. Which is strange (I say as someone who was still a child when Reagan was President), because even Reagan was not Reaganesque most of the time. But "Reaganesque" larger-than-life, the glory days of America winning the Cold War -- those are the nonverbal images that remain with us from those years. Nonverbal communication is how legends are made. In an age obsessed with image, no wonder we have more legends than are perhaps good for us; or that few of those legends stand the test of time.
The four political debates of the last month could all serve as textbooks for nonverbal communication in future college courses. I believe they will also be analyzed in future because this is the first election cycle ever where the social networking platforms play a larger role in refining how voters react to the debates than the traditional media. In all four debates, each side claimed victory and the media gave the Democrats the win on paper in most cases, but popular momentum online quickly shifted to favor the Republicans. In each debate, the Republican candidate had the edge in nonverbal communication. In case you did not watch the debates, here's my 3-word summary of each candidate's nonverbal performance during each debate, along with my attempt to intercept their thoughts at the time.
1st presidential debate:
Romney: presidential, positive, aggressive
What he was thinking: "Be presidential, be positive, be aggressive."
Obama: medicated, passive, detached
What he was thinking: "Um... Uh... why can't I have my teleprompter?"
Ryan: smart, professional, articulate
What he was thinking: "Get the facts across. Don't get distracted by the buffoon."
Biden: mocking, belittling, gool-ol-boy trying to learn the kid some manners
What he was thinking: "Guffaw. I just laugh at the newbie until he gives up. It should work."
2nd presidential debate:
Romney: aggressive, positive, presidential
What he was thinking: "I know what it takes to get the economy working again." "Hey America, you do not have to stay with this bozo. I will fight to restore your honor." (There was a point where they locked eyes and my heart skipped a beat; it was like he was channelling Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice. And Obama was definitely Wickham.)
Obama: aggressive, angry, entitled
What he was thinking: "This is mine and I will not let it go without a fight." "Hey America, I'll pay for your birth control. You will follow me because of that and because I am so innately superior to all others."
3rd presidential debate:
Romney: positive, happy warrior
What he was thinking: "Man-to-man defense: stay close and let him make his own mistakes." "Restore America's honor and backbone."
Obama: angry, spiteful, petulant, condescending
What he was thinking: "L'etat, c'est moi. " "My opponents are so infantile that I will treat them like 3-year-olds, demonstrating with hand motions what an aircraft carrier and a nuclear submarine look like and mocking horses and bayonets."
I've changed my opinion over the course of the debates. I used to think Obama had a certain likeability even though I had no intention of voting for him. Now, I think he's petty and selfish. And Romney, who had never been my first choice for a Republican nominee, now seems Reaganesque and ready to take command of a bad situation. How did this happen? I would suggest that it was all in the nonverbal communication. Now, how that nonverbal communication strikes me is one thing; how it strikes the undecided voters in the swing states will be key.
It's going to be a long couple of weeks.
In case you want to read other analysis: