Letter from Iowa

In the 1960 debate between then-presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, JFK’s picture of perfect health compared to the sweaty, fumbling Nixon was a major factor that pushed JFK ahead to win the race. Though the content of politicians’ speech matters, their body language and physical appearance makes a difference in voters’ minds and opinions when election day comes. As we look ahead to the primaries, it’s valuable to reflect on the political landscape of 2007; though it seems romanticized given the current administration, the familiar faces remind us of the flexibility and evolution of the political game. Johanna Kasimow takes us back to the presidential debates in Iowa and analyzes the subtle physical tactics of the candidates—giving readers a framework through which to judge our past and future leaders.

Language Issue, 2007

In a meeting in Grinnell, Iowa, Democratic candidate Joe Biden said, in a matter of minutes, that “our economy is on the balls of its heels,” that he will “free us from the iron grip of the oligarchs of oil” and that the world is in “the palm of our hands.” 

The spoken language of candidates, which draws extensively from body metaphors, reinforces the importance of body language in a political campaign. In their book The Definitive Book of Body Language Allan and Barbara Pease point out that an important component of our everyday speech derives from our concept of the body. In the weeks leading up to the Iowa Caucus, each candidate is “standing up for” or “taking a stand against” something—universal health care, the war in Iraq, abortion—you name it. And in no uncertain terms the candidates are saying to the Iowa voters “stand up for me” on January 3. 

Perhaps body language speaks louder than words, and candidates send the strongest message to voters through movement, posture, tone of voice, and facial expressions. “Those are the cues we use to judge people in everyday life, and while voters may or may not be confident of what they think about policy, they are more confident they know how to size a person up,” explained John Neffinger, a partner with a Washington-based consulting firm, KNP Communications, that works to prepare speakers for public audiences. 

Bruce Gronbeck, Professor of Media Studies and Political Culture at the University of Iowa, said that the average person is clueless about what the military should do in Iraq. “We can’t judge that, so we have to put an awful lot of faith on our assessment of the quality of the human that is talking to us,” an assessment that is largely unconscious. According to Gronbeck, the candidates may have very different styles, but above all, their voice quality and body language must be consistent with their verbal message. Neffinger agrees, “Candidates whose non-verbals are in sync with what they are talking about are viewed as trustworthy and ‘authentic’—even when they are not.” 

Gronbeck noted how Joe Biden aggressively leans forward, uses his fists in a “podium pounding” gesture, and often stands with one leg in front of the other when he speaks. “His voice, his words, and his stance are all coordinated to leave the image of somebody who is mad and disgusted with where the country is and who is demanding serious reform that is going to take very aggressive action.” 

Biden’s tough bearing of body may be in sync with his words, but he and Republican Mitt Romney often move into risky territory with an ill-timed smile. Neffinger noted, “They have great smiles, but they sometimes smile even when they are talking about unhappy topics like war. Some people may follow their point, but many will instinctively ask, ‘What the hell is wrong with him?’” 

An ill-timed smile may result in an ill-fated presidential run. “Candidates whose non-verbals are out of sync with what they are saying will not only fail to get their message across, they’ll raise serious questions about whether they mean what they say, or are just saying what they want people to hear,” Neffinger said. For example, former Vice President Al Gore may have been stiffed in the 2000 presidential election, but he would have helped himself if he had loosened up. His stiff, upright posture stood in stark contrast to his verbal message, and also to the ease of movement of George W. Bush. 

In the Brown and Black Forum in Des Moines, Iowa on December 1, Democrat John Edwards blinked his eyes rapidly and continuously. It was distracting, but did it also detract from the populist, son of a mill-worker image that he cultivates? Tonja Olive, Colorado College Professor of Feminist and Gender Studies, explained that people form impressions of honesty, moral character, and intelligence based on eye contact. Lack of eye contact, like frequent blinking, is often interpreted as “a message that a person is not as moral or as good” as someone with a steady gaze she said. Frequent blinking plays into previously existing doubts about Edwards’s character as a slick trial-lawyer or a high-priced-haircut hypocrite. When it comes down to it, Olive said, people intuitively trust the body. “We can see incongruity in the message and the non-verbal implication of that message.” Olive was quick to point out that reading into body language such as blinking does not necessarily reflect the intent of the sender, in this case John Edwards, but rather the perception of the receiver, or voter. She took a step back. “It could also be dry eyes.” 

Neffinger said, “The key to successful body language for politicians is to project the two most important traits of a leader: strength and warmth.” And they have to project them at the same time. This may be a unique challenge for Hillary Clinton, the first serious female presidential candidate. Body language is often interpreted differently for men and women. For example, Olive explains that direct eye contact for men is perceived as a statement of power and dominance, whereas for women direct eye contact is perceived as sexual or aggressive.

Clinton’s body language must communicate a balance of the feminine and masculine, and also remain loyal to an already conceived image of Clinton. Neffinger says Clinton has been “very consistently very strong, so she has managed to offset any gender-based impressions of relative weakness. If anything, she has seemed less warm than voters might prefer.” At an event in Ankeny, Iowa, Clinton did a masterful balancing act. She gave a formal health care policy speech behind a podium and then sat down next to two women on the stage whom Clinton had brought with her and who had struggled with their health and the cost of health insurance. As the women told their devastating stories, Clinton sat next to them nodding, looking as if she was on the brink of tears, but never letting one drop. A minute later she stood up again to answer detailed health care policy questions. In a matter of minutes, Clinton projected strength, compassion, and competence. 

This was no accident. Neffinger says that almost all the candidates receive formal coaching to some extent, especially before the debates. He notes that Republican Rudy Giuliani has had a noticeable shift in demeanor “from a tough-talking mayor to a smiley jokester, reportedly with the help of a fulltime aide who focuses on his delivery.” 

In a presidential race where the leading contenders are neck and neck in polls, candidates are wise to pay close attention to their, well, neck—and hands and eyes and legs. The voters certainly will.

Archival Issue | March 2019