The Obama-Romney debate: Who won the body-language war?

The Week's Editorial Staff
The Week
Mitt Romney and President Obama go in for the cordial handshake after their first debate on Oct. 3.

Once voters forget what President Obama and Mitt Romney said in their Wednesday showdown, they'll still remember the images they projected

The consensus is that Mitt Romney handily won the first 2012 presidential debate on points by attacking President Obama's policies and putting him on the defensive. Yet, according to many debate experts, substance matters less than the overall impression the candidates make with their tone and body language. "We process these debates with our reptilian brain," says Michael Crowley at TIME. "We watch for moments of conflict, wit, fallibility," and look for the body movements and facial expressions that clue us into "the candidates' true nature and character." In terms of body language, who came out better in Wednesday's debate?

"If you had the sound turned off, Romney looked calm and affable through more of the debate than Obama did," says James Fallows at The Atlantic. Romney kept a smile on his face all night — "whether genuine or forced" — while Obama frequently scowled as he was forced to deflect repeated assaults on his record. "Call it the curse of incumbency," says Ron Fournier at National Journal. Many sitting presidents go into the first debate burdened with high expectations — this is the leader of the free world, people figure, he should mop up the floor with the newcomer. Then, hectored by a "hungry challenger," they reveal a "short fuse," as Obama did. While Romney came across as "personable, funny, and relentlessly on the attack," Obama "looked peeved and flat as he carried a conversation, for the first time in four years, with somebody telling him he's wrong."

SEE MORE: WATCH LIVE: The first presidential debate

"All in all, Barack Obama was measured and cool, nonverbally, while Mitt Romney was aggressive, interrupting," and disturbingly manic, Gonzaga University anthropologist David B. Givens tells The Daily Beast. When Obama disagreed with his rival's remarks, he showed it simply by pursing his lips, while Romney displayed an off-puttingly "smirky, strained, sardonic smile." Romney kept talking over the host to get in the last word, looking jittery with his kinetic movements and head nods — "way aggressive, like Benito Mussolini." Obama might not have smiled enough, Karen Studd, who teaches movement analysis at Virginia's George Mason University, tells The Associated Press, but when he did "that smile lit up Obama's whole face, and appeared very genuine." His endearing passion especially showed when he mentioned that the night was his 20th wedding anniversary with wife, Michelle. Romney's forced smile was always plastered on his face, "but it didn't look very happy — almost a scowl." He didn't do himself any favors in the likability department.

The candidates movements and frowns can indeed tip the scales in a debate, says Jo Piazza at In this case, however, body language experts say both Obama and Romney scored points, so the "way they carried themselves" probably won't overshadow the content of their debate. Romney's forcefulness showed confidence and competence, but his over-talking struck some people as "rude." Obama's "lack of energy" showed he didn't "bring his 'A' game," says Carol Kinsey Goman at Forbes, but the "timber of his voice when he talked about his grandmother" and "fighting every day" for the middle class projected empathy. This is still up in the air, folks. "I can't wait for the second debate!"

SEE MORE: The latest tweets about the first presidential debate

Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.

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