By Kellie Rowe
East Lansing — From eye contact to hand gestures, the candidates vying to be the next president of the United States put their communication skills to the test during the first of three presidential debates.
As the majority of media outlets reported Republican nominee Mitt Romney was the clear victor, many agree body language played a major factor in Obama’s apparent loss.
“The debate was largely won due to body language, not verbal content of the answers,” said communication associate professor Steven McCornack.
McCornack said because of body language, many of those who watched the debate felt Romney was the winner, while those listening might have considered it a draw.
MSU international relations junior Tyler Hummel was among the 37.41 million watching the debate, and said he felt Romney presented himself as a “brick wall” on stage.
“He addressed the president, the debate moderator and the audience at home directly by looking each one right in the eyes,” he said. “He certainly looked like a man who was on the offensive and showed neither fear nor remorse.”
As for Obama, McCornack said the president spent most of the debate looking downward, rarely directing comments straight to Romney.
Robert Kolt, an advertising, public relations and retailing instructor at MSU, said body language is important to any audience, but in this particular instance, Obama’s tendency to either speak to the host or directly into the camera was a major factor in his apparent loss.
“The president did not engage Mitt Romney through his body language, and I think that hurt the public perception of the president by the audience,” he said.
Kolt also said many viewers perceived Obama’s body language, as he rarely addressed his opponent directly, as disrespectful to Romney.
Hummel said he noticed the president was unable to bring his eyes above shoulder level during most of his responses.
“His body language indicated defeat, as if he knew 20 minutes into the debate that Mitt Romney had him beat,” he said.
According to the New York Times, each candidate had three gestures that signified different attitudes toward a variety of subjects. During the debate, Obama’s major gestures included “waving a ball,” “pointer” and “cutting.”
When the president appeared to be waving a ball, analysts concluded he hoped to pass along an idea he hopes viewers would agree with him on. By holding his hand “as if he were operating a remote control,” the article suggests Obama attempted to assert control and used this gesture most frequently. To emphasize a particular action verb, Obama often used a chopping motion. This action was also use to illustrate a sarcastic remark toward something Romney might do, the article said.
Romney shared his opponent’s pointer gesture, also swinging his arms to emphasize “strength of conviction.” He also often held his arms in a free-flowing embrace, which he used to emphasize his ideas were obviously better than the president’s, according to the article. But above all, his signature move, the “tilt and nod,” asked his viewers if they agreed with him on a particular subject.
As Hummel watched the debate unfold, he said he noticed a few of these gestures and was particularly surprised by Romney’s assertive behavior.
“It was unusual for such a reserved man to be talking with so much force (by) using his arms to drive home his points,” he said.
During the debate, Romney addressed the issue of
“I want to underline that — no tax cut that adds to the deficit,” he said. “But I do want to reduce the burden being paid by middle-income Americans.”
During this statement, Romney positioned his body toward Obama, making direct eye contact. However, as Obama responded, he turned away from his opponent.
“Well, I think — let’s talk about taxes because I think it’s instructive,” he said, his eyes lowered, facing the audience.
McCornack said the overall impression was one of “strength” and “assertiveness” for Romney and “passivity” and “submissiveness” for Obama.
While some might believe the debate was a misrepresentation of the normally confident and articulate Obama, Hummel said he wasn’t particularly surprised by the president’s performance.
“I am one of the only people who believe that president Obama didn’t have an off night,” he said. “I truly believe that the man is incapable of putting together coherent sentences without using his teleprompter.”
Hummel said he felt Romney had an obvious win, and his performance could prove to be a “game changer.”
As the candidates gear up for the next presidential debate, Kolt said he expects the presidential hopefuls will rethink their tactics on stage.
“Style is as important as substance in a debate,” he said. “I think the communication strategy for both candidates will change in the next debate.”