The Look of Losing, Then and Now: Nixon, Obama, and Nonverbal Indicators of Opportunity Lost

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This article asks whether losing in a political debate is associated with a set of visible, empirically verifiable nonverbal indicators that correspond to physical weakness, pronounced stress, evasive or fearful behavior, and other outward signs of secondary or subordinate status. To answer this question, a comparative content analysis of the first 1960 and 2012 U.S. presidential debates is performed, contrasting the “losing” performance of Richard Nixon during the first televised presidential debate of 1960 with the “lackluster” performance of Barack Obama during the first televised debate of 2012—arguably the worst night of his political career. Campaign lore and anecdotal accounts suggest in Nixon’s case that negative evaluations were mostly due to his haggard appearance rather than debate performance, but detailed content analysis using biobehaviorally derived expressive categories suggests the vice president’s nonverbal behavior was equally important. For the 2012 debate, particular emphasis is placed on the communicative behavior of President Obama, who appeared evasive and at times dominated by Mitt Romney, which disappointed supporters and gave Romney momentum in the polls. To facilitate comparison, each debate is subjected to a shot-by-shot analysis of the candidates’ nonverbal behavior, including facial expressions, vocal tone, communicative gestures, blink rate, and other nonverbal tics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1772-1798
Number of pages27
JournalAmerican Behavioral Scientist
Issue number14
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016


  • blink rate
  • expectancy vio-lations
  • facial expressions
  • gestures
  • nonverbal behavior
  • presidential debates
  • televised leader displays


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