Presidential Debates: How Body Language Reveals Who Really Wins and Loses

If Boston College Psychology Professor Joe Tecce is to be believed, what we hear in the presidential and vice presidential debates means less than what we see. In a recent interview with Wicked Local Wellesley Professor Tecce says, “President Barack Obama blinked 1,300 more times than Romney, and he averted his gaze 500 more times than Romney” during their first debate. Bad news for the president if the Professor’s theory is correct.

Tecce’s research has led him to successfully predict the outcome of every presidential election since 1988. He became interested in the idea of blink rate as predictor after watching President Nixon’s resignation speech in 1974. Tecce described Nixon has having “eye blink storms” that he had only previously observed in subjects with schizophrenia.

The Center for Nonverbal Studies puts the average human’s blink rate at 20 blinks per minute, lasting half-a-second, while the average for a person under the stress of appearing on television is between 30 and 50 blinks per minute (BPM). The website also carries the following “[i]n the 1996 presidential debates, candidate Bob Dole averaged 147 blinks--seven times above normal. President Bill Clinton averaged 99 blinks a minute, reaching 117 when asked about increases in teen drug use, a sensitive issue of the day (Tecce 1996).”  Further supporting Professor Tecce’s thesis.

During the 2008 Presidential race Tecce was interviewed by The MetroWest Daily News. His observation? That McCain was blinking “too much” during his September 26th debate with Obama; 112 BPM compared with 67 BPM. Another successful prediction.

Moving forward to the current contest, during the first presidential debate, Romney clocked in with 70 BPM, the mark of someone under high stress. Obama started the question and answer portion at 92 BPM. 

During an interview on WBZ Radio in Boston, Professor Tecce observed Vice President Biden’s behavior was indicative of a man under a great deal of stress during the VP debate. The infamous “smile” or “smirk” was viewed as a mark of nervousness and insecurity. So to the interruptions and speaking over Ryan during the debate. Tecce opined these were the actions of man anxious to disrupt the other and make “points.”

More than just blink rate has been observed, Biden’s smirking has been commented on by the BBC World Service and The Daily Mail in the United Kingdom. They describe Biden's performance as “both comical and self-defeating. Just as Al Gore sighed and rolled his eyes in 2000, so Biden smirked and guffawed.” Further analysis was his body language was extreme and he “gesticulated wildly” while Ryan appeared calm if a bit cowed by Biden’s performance. 

In summary, one’s body language is telling, especially since this is subconscious behavior. The more stressed one is the more rapid the eyes blink and the more grand the gestures and expressions become. The population, in general do not observe and study these traits, but everyone at a very base level, gets a “feeling” when someone is stressed or lies (which causes stress in anyone who is not pathological. If Professor Tecce’s theory is correct, however, we all sense these behavioral changes and tend to choose the calmer candidate for president. The next two debates just got more interesting.