The Body Politic

In a recent skit on YouTube, Hillary Clinton impersonator Rosemary Watson portrays the presidential hopeful alone in an Iowa hotel room, rehearsing an upcoming speech. “New hand gestures, Iowa. Take one,” announces faux Hillary, dressed in a white terry cloth robe.

“Helloooo pig farmers,” she bellows in a nasal Midwestern accent, before verbally and visually running through a gamut of gestures. “And I begin to hammer on healthcare,” she says, pummeling the air with clenched fists.

“I do a smoothing motion on middle class taxes, palms down,” she says, while looking like she’s practicing the breaststroke. “I enumerate the flaws of my opponent with a crooked finger,” she concludes, turning her body sideways to face an invisible rival while repeating an admonitory gesture.

Though the real Clinton has studied stagecraft with a high-priced media coach — as have many current and former candidates — and often animates speeches with an array of nods, waves and karate chops, she probably does not choreograph every move she makes. Yet, like most successful politicians, Clinton understands the power of body language: Hand motions, facial gestures and posture all can enhance or undermine a campaign’s message, shape public perception of a politician and profoundly influence an audience of voters — whether the voters know it or not. In today’s media marketplace, the practiced smile and the sly smirk, the hearty salute and the triumphant double thumbs-up are the political equivalent of product packaging.

“The visual image impacts more than the words,” says Democratic Party strategist Celinda Lake, president of the Washington, D.C-based Lake Research Partners, whose clients include Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano and Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu. To gauge whether her clients’ body language will appeal to or annoy potential voters, Lake first shows focus groups video of candidates with the audio turned off.

“You can’t absorb someone’s policy position in two seconds, but you can get your instinctual reaction to them,” says Dan Hill, an expert on “facial coding” and president of Sensory Logic, a consumer research firm in Minneapolis. “And you can get that on a non-conscious, nonverbal basis.”

Undebatable truths

There’s no better critical forum for candidates to sway the all-important undecided voter than “unscripted” presidential debates. But when they turn to the intricacies of healthcare mandates, audiences tend to tune out. “As auditory attention wanes, visual subtexts become even more important,” write the authors of “The Visual Byte: Bill Clinton and His Town Hall Meeting Style,” published in The Journal of Communication in 2007.

The authors scrutinized the 1992 and 1996 presidential debates and concluded that Bill Clinton, through his strategic use of body language, was the most persuasive candidate on stage. For instance, during 1992’s town hall-style debate, Clinton came across as respectful when Ross Perot — whose independent voters Clinton wanted to lure — spoke to the crowd and cameras. Clinton “sat on his stool, placed his hands between his knees and tilted his head towards Perot, as if Clinton were listening to each word Perot said,” write authors Mark Goldman, Mark Gring and Brian Anderson.

However, when George H.W. Bush spoke, Clinton’s nonverbal cues challenged the incumbent president’s talking points. Clinton created motion to attract the TV camera, standing up, jutting out his chin and smirking or shaking his head. “Clinton sold his own message with visual as well as verbal elements, and he transformed opponents’ message opportunities into scenarios where Clinton was actually doing the selling,” they concluded.

A longtime Clinton advisor, who requested anonymity, admitted, “We practiced reaction shots extensively [because that’s where] 15 to 20 percent of your face time goes.”