LIVEBLOG: Mitt Romney, Barack Obama’s presidential debate body language cues

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PHOTOS BY: SHOTGUN SPRATLING AND HYUNAH JANG

President of Philadelphia-based personal image firm “A Suitable Solution” Sara Canuso spoke with Metro yesterday about the importance of nonverbal communication when it comes to shaping viewers’ perceptions of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney during this evening’s debate.

Tonight, she is joining us live to provide real time observations on the candidates’ body language cues, deciphering everything from their suit colors to their hand gestures.

9 p.m. And we’re off. As Canuso predicted yesterday, the candidates are wearing dark, but not black suits – both went for navy. “Both candidates have a strong, commanding presence,” Canuso says, also pointing to their white shirts as a sign they are ready to do business. She says Obama is going for the likability factor with his blue tie, while Romney’s bold red tie stimulates brain activity, which signals he wants people to focus on his views.

9:10 p.m.
Romney is doing well with his facial expressions – they’re
coming off as natural and genuine without seeming overly emotional. Canuso notes his strong eye contact when speaking, a sign of both openness and confidence, and the way he “uses his hands as if to embrace the audience.”

But Obama, she says, is keeping his eyes focused downward as Romney is speaking to him, a sign that the incumbent may not want to hear what Romney is saying. And we saw a big grin from Obama when Romney says that high-income Americans will do fine whether Romney is president or Obama is president. “Obama’s facial expression is very strong as if to say to Romney, ‘Oh, really?’” Canuso notes.

As Romney presses on about the economy, Canuso says Obama tightens his lips, signaling he’s “in defense mode.” A little too much frowning and sighing, there.

9:15 p.m. It seems like Obama hits a sore spot when he mentions Romney’s proposed tax cut package. Romney shows signs of frustration, with his hand gestures becoming a little too wild. “Romney needs to slow down,” Canuso says. “He’s very animated.” He shows a lack of control and a few flashes of temper, directly addressing moderator Jim Lehrer to say “virtually everything” Obama claims about his tax cuts are inaccurate.

Romney later interrupts the moderator, and when the candidates are told they’ve run over the first fifteen minutes, he says, “Isn’t it fun?” The offhand comment comes off as a little too flippant and could possibly be perceived as a lack of regard for other people’s time.

9:30 p.m. As the candidates delve into the deficit, Canuso notes Obama’s continued defensiveness. She notes that when Romney speaks, Obama keeps shaking his head, as if to say, “we need to
move on.” It comes off as though he does not want to listen and could be seen as impatient. Canuso notes Obama could be perceived as not paying attention or being avoidant, as he keeps turning his head away from Romney as he speaks.

9:40 p.m. Obama comes off as warm and genuine while discussing his grandparents in the context of Social Security, showing emotion in his eyes and using open-palmed, natural hand gestures. As Obama is discussing Romney’s proposed cuts to Medicare, Romney’s grin seems almost like a sneer and he looks downward, indicating he may have struck a nerve. Canuso notes he raises his eyebrows, “a sign of disbelief.”

Obama says if the Medicare system collapes, “they you got folks like my grandma at the mercy of the insurance companies.” Again, evoking his family generates a welcoming expression in his eyes and broad but natural hand gestures that draw the audience into what he is saying.

Romney, though, while discussing the weaknesses of Medicare, doesn’t address the cameras. Instead, his eyes are cast Obama’s way, but with the way he’s shaking his head and gesturing, he comes off as a little desperate, rather than casually confident. But when he places his hand over his heart, Canuso says, “it’s a sign he is sincere in what he is saying.”

9:50 p.m. As the two move into discussing Wall Street regulations, Romney seems to remain on the defensive, grinning and shaking his head as Obama speaks about the need for restraints and talking quickly when it’s his turn. “Obama is a slower speaker and pauses more,” Canuso says. “He wants to be sure people understand what he is saying.”

10 p.m. They’re talking healthcare now. Obama doesn’t like it when Romney uses the word “Obamacare” – his tightened jaw shows a flash of defensiveness, and he often casts his eyes downward.

Though Obama has a slight edge in his engaging speaking skills, he’s not connecting well with Romney – it doesn’t seem that he’s listening to him or addressing him. It’s obvious he’s focused on engaging the viewer and audience, rather than Romney. “Obama looks directly into camera to have strong eye contact,” when speaking about healthcare, Canuso notes. His ability to stay above the fray is twofold – it shows an unflappable ability to stick to his agenda, but it could also be perceived as either haughtiness or a lack of courage to directly stand up to Romney.

When Obama’s told his ten minutes are up, he says to Lehrer, “No, I think I had about five seconds before you interrupted me.” Another attempt at humor that could be perceived as disrespectful. Maybe both candidates should steer clear of the jokes.

10:15 p.m. Romney is in full-on defense mode while discussing his proposed healthcare plan, spending his first 30 seconds directly refuting Obama’s claims and getting dangerously close to bickering territory. His continued references to the private sector when talking about shrinking healthcare could evoke his business acumen or come off as cold and clinical, depending on the viewer.

When it’s Obama’s time to talk, “Romney shifts his weight from side to side,” Canuso says. “It indicates he is extremely anxious to respond.”

10:20 p.m. Education. Obama is warm, smiling and appears relaxed as he outlines the way in which he has made federal school grants a more results-oriented and competitive process.

Romney appears bursting to speak and for at least the first 30 seconds of his education preamble – in which he talks about how much he loves teachers and schools – he sounds like he’s just rattling off rehearsed talking points. But as he starts to criticize Obama’s “trickle-down” economic approach, he becomes more comfortable. “Romney is speaking with more emotion at this point,” Canuso notes.

10:30 p.m. Both men were on the defensive at different times,  but Obama’s calmness served him well here. He cut a level-headed figure in contrast to the more excitable Romney, who seemed to become slightly more unhinged as the debate raged on, his pitch, the breadth of his gestures and the speed of his voice all escalating until he appeared slightly frantic.

At the other end of the spectrum, Obama’s coolness has sometimes painted him as aloof or disconnected in the past, but during Wednesday night’s debate, it made him seem in control and positively unflappable standing next to Romney.

Still, Canuso gave it to Romney, for commanding attention and appearing engaged, where Obama, at times, seemed dispassionate and bored. “I felt that toward the end, Romney spoke with more emotions and his closing was a strong connection,” she said. “Obama should have kept more eye contact and stayed on the stage longer.” 


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