Who Won the GOP Primary Debate, According to Body Language

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There were a lot of choice words flying around the stage at the final GOP primary debate tonight, but the candidates’ body language said much more than any of their canned remarks.

I’ve been decoding nonverbal communication for over 50 years, 25 as an FBI agent. My work taught me that people lie all the time, but their bodies usually tell the truth. A flushed face, a twitch at the corner of the mouth, a hand shaking with nerves — nonverbal tells reveal our true thoughts and emotions.

And there were certainly a lot of unspoken thoughts and emotions tonight.

Ron DeSantis’ awkward smile, Nikki Haley’s killer eyeroll, Vivek Ramaswamy’s angled eyebrows — I saw a veritable stage play tonight, only the best dialogue was unspoken. Here’s what body language told me about how the candidates are closing out this primary season:

Ron DeSantis Can Smile, After All — It’s Just Awkward

During the first GOP debate, I wrote that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis failed to smile. He seems to have taken that advice to heart. Unfortunately, he fumbled the execution. He should be aiming for what’s called a Duchenne smile, when the zygomaticus major muscle lifts the corners of the mouth while the orbicularis oculi muscle around the eyes raises the cheeks, crinkling one’s laugh lines and crows feet in a way that communicates genuine authenticity. DeSantis, often criticized for his awkwardness, pulls the corners (or commissures) of his mouth to reveal his teeth, but the gesture appears odd and stiff. You can see this at the end of his closing statement. That’s a big problem for DeSantis, because an inauthentic smile looks untrustworthy.

Vivek Ramaswamy Isn’t Having Fun Anymore

At the first debate, Vivek Ramaswamy looked like he was having a ball, with a supernova smile and big, emphatic hand gestures that grabbed him attention as a feisty newcomer. Tonight, as Ramaswamy took his last shot at drawing daylight between himself and his opponents on a debate stage, it was clear the fun is over. He was angry, and it was visible from the very beginning: His eyebrows angled with discontent, his jaws were tense and his vocal volume, an element of what we call prosody, was stuck on high, making him appear one-note and aggrieved. Even when he gestured with both hands or used his eyebrows to potentiate his message, that vocal flatline made everything he said sound the same, leaving his audience unable to pick out the highs from the lows. His repeated interruptions of former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and other candidates also worked against him. Confidence does not require constant interjection. He looked like a nervous bench-sitter itching to play in the game.

Nikki Haley Has a Deadly Eyeroll

The tension on Haley’s face from the start spoke to her commitment and resolve. She was cogent and focused, and her delivery was precise. Her use of humor to defang Vivek’s sexist remark about her heels (he compared her and DeSantis, who has been accused of wearing height-boosting heel inserts in his cowboy boots, to “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels”) was flawless. When Ramaswamy — who has campaigned on TikTok — criticized Haley for allowing her daughter to use the app, she hit back hard. Her words were strong — “Leave my daughter out of your voice,” she said — but her body language was even stronger: She clenched her jaw and rolled her eyes in a devastating, dismissive way, showing that she’s in control even when she’s seething and that she considers Ramaswamy insignificant. She pointed her finger at him like a gun to show him that he’d crossed a line. Unfortunately, many of Haley’s other hand gestures were muted. As I wrote in my advice piece for the candidates before the second debate, Haley should spread her fingers wide when she makes hand gestures to draw extra attention to her talking points and she needs to do them high enough so that the television audience can see them. Her close-fingered gestures failed to achieve that kind of dazzle — especially for the viewers at home.

Chris Christie Can Tell a Story With His Eyes

Christie was as polished as always. As a former prosecutor practiced at charming a jury, he used his smooth vocal cadence to deliver talking points in a way that was easy to understand. His hand gestures were also smooth, communicating a sense of calm and control. Only Scott, himself a polished orator, used nonverbals to demarcate his most important points so effectively. Christie is particularly adept at communicating with his eyes, arching his eyebrows for drama and narrowing his eyes to underline important messages. You may not agree with him, but when he is speaking, you cannot turn away from him.

Tim Scott Looks Like a Friend

Scott looked presidential. He was eloquent and poised. Once again he quoted scripture on the stage, speaking with the measured and comforting cadence of a pastor. Of all the candidates, he appears the most approachable, thanks to his easy smile, his deep baritone voice and the way he turns to all sides of the audience as he speaks, making everyone feel addressed. His wide, open-palmed hand gestures and the upward tilt of his head, an almost prayerful posture, gave weight to his message. Early on, he hesitated multiple times when he spoke, but he course-corrected as the debate went on, cleaning up his delivery, gliding through a variety of topics and rattling off statistics without a hitch.

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