After some thoughtful analysis, my research question is revised:
“How do the visuals of Presidential Candidates during a televised debate, including body language, facial expressions, dress, and physical traits influence the popular opinion about the winner and the socially constructed identity of the candidates?”
Three Presidential Debates were televised during the 2012 Election and all subsequently posted online, perhaps most accessible through YouTube. This amount of instantaneous access, including the ability to backtrack, as well as to freeze and then screen-capture any frame was a great tool for the researcher. Through panning on YouTube, the researcher was able to quickly find key moments of body language and expression that fitted the themes explored, as well as to absorb a general impression of the Candidates’ dress, demeanor, and physical traits.
The research concluded that there is an immense focus placed on the visuals during a presidential debate. President Obama, after a disastrous slouched First Debate was able to win the second two and carry positive public opinion into the General Election. Indeed, after a long series of struggles and egregious gaffes, the Romney Campaign may look at that First Debate (on Domestic Policy) as the true highlight of the campaign, which was mostly based on beating Obama visually.
President Obama was able to bounce back, however, and through a more confident poise, attitude, and active engagement he succeeded against Mitt Romney, who appeared more aloof and out-of-touch as the debates went on.
The research echoes the public feeling of Americans towards watching their leaders that has grown since the infamous televised Nixon / Kennedy debates of 1960. When Americans watch their potential Presidents in action, they want them to look good. Every minute detail is under scrutiny, more so now in an age of YouTube where anyone on earth can instantly access a High Definition frame-by-frame analysis and then in turn provide his or her own critical commentary.
This is important to remember for any future candidate. President Obama recovered from horrible visuals and went on to win the election. This is of course not the only reason he won. Obama also identified with his constituents by using a level of data analysis unheard of in any other election. He trounced Romney on Social Media (his Twitter followers were nearly 11 times that of the Republican, and much more influential). Through the later debates, Obama was able to buy back into this brand of engagement and relevancy (the Obrandma, you’ll remember…) rather than the disaffected persona he exuded in the first debate. There’s no telling who we may have been saluting had Obama continued to display himself with such visual ineffectiveness for the other two debates.
There are many other factors that go into a Presidential Election, but it’s clear that with how many people witnessed these Debates and with the great array of cultural memes brought forth, (“Binders full of women,” “horses and bayonets,” and there hasn’t been this much attention paid to Big Bird in years…) the debates are truly a part of the American zeitgeist. The most crucial moments are watched by hundreds of millions of people - and that is the key - the watching belies a visual investment that allows people to make impressions of each candidate. Again, there is no shortage of data stemming from this election. Google has done a massive job polling precisely who watched the debates and what they thought of the candidates. This huge public feeling towards the next potential leader can change an election.
Today I will continue the examination started with this post here, where we’re looking at the impact of body language in Presidential Debates.
How does the visual representation of Nominees in Presidential debates while their opponents are talking affect the audience perception of them as a potential leader?
Does it actually matter about the leadership perception or is it more about acquiring votes - if so, how does their visual representation affect voting?
Looking specifically at the third Presidential Debate, on Foreign Policy, we see some interesting reaction shots from both Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican Nominee, and President Barack Obama, the Democratic Nominee. Our focus is not on how the debaters look when speaking, but how they look when their opponent is directly thrusting their opinion in the others’ face. There were two moments during the debate specifically where the opponent made a counter-point that negated what the other said and the camera focused on the other while this was happening. More often the camera is naturally focused on the debater talking. When there is potential for conflict, though, the camera was able to catch the opponent’s reaction to being called out, which helped to heighten the dramatic tension.
The Third Presidential Debate took place on October 22nd, 2012 at 9:00 pm EST at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. You can watch the entire thing streamed on YouTube below:
This is worth looking at because it was the last time that both Nominees were seen together before the Election on November 6th, 2012. Therefore, it’s the last time that either will really be able to address the other live and directly before voters must make their final choice. Body language is important because it communicates an immediate emotional impact with observers. It is easier for the Candidates to control their body language when it is in conjunction with their speaking (it is also when they know they are on camera). When their opponent is speaking, though, we get more of a natural reaction or insight into the opinions and character behind the talking points. It is worth noting if audiences can pick up on this, and if they can, what impact it may have on their final vote.
We can notice a few things immediately. Both President Obama and Governor Romney are sharing a single table, with some sparse notes. This is in contrast to earlier debates where they each had individual podiums that squared them off against each other. This could indicate the high extent of common ground the Nominees share on Foreign Policy or just a way to informalize what has been a brutally partisan campaign. Romney is wearing a red tie, the color associated with the Republican Party. Obama is in blue for the Democrats.
Around forty minutes in, Romney made a statement that criticized Obama for reducing the size of the American Navy to levels not seen since 1917. Obama retaliated, treating Mitt like a child who doesn’t understand how the modern military operates. He explained that we have these things called Aircraft Carriers and Submarines that change warfare and that we no longer have horses or bayonets, either. It is part of his ploy to paint Romney as a guy who has no idea what he’s doing on an International Stage, which is true. Romney’s strengths are in Domestic Policy and he has no business being a world leader. His reaction while Obama was critiquing him expresses this:
He’s showing trepidation, his eyes sagging, mouth forced into a sly smile but held back from his hatred at knowing he was wrong and Obama outsmarted him. Look at those eyes. He has cold, lifeless eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. Doesn’t seem to be living - until he bites down and those eyes roll back white into his head.
I digress. Moving to about an hour and twenty minutes into the debate, Romney had his turn to trip up Obama. More and more this debate turned to the economy and domestic policy. Both candidates used questions about China as an opportunity to talk about their own reform policies. During this, Obama went off on a distracted tangent about how Mitt was in disfavor of the Auto Industry Bailout (see? I can be impartial and criticize the President. Sometimes). Mitt countered saying he was a Son of Detroit and how there was no way he could ever do such a thing.
During this moment Obama has an absolute steely determination. He’s stonefaced, confident, with the slightest edge of a smile indicating his closeness to his position. Compare this with Mitt’s floppy reaction earlier and you can see the difference between a man of conviction and someone who has been force-fed an ideology to win at the cost of any position (alright, screw that unbiased thing…). The only indication of nervousness may be the twitching of the pen he’s holding, indicating a need to occupy his hands instead of keeping them firm like Mitt. Then again, if pen fondling isn’t in Mitt’s programming, he’s not going to do it, obviously.
Symbolism / Absences:
One last thing to note, it is not visible in the above shot of Obama, but the President was wearing a Pink Breast Cancer bracelet during the entire debates. It went unmentioned, but it served a huge visual purpose. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and in doing so, Obama is subtly showing that he is by far the Candidate most in tune with Women’s Issues, despite what Mitt’s Binders may try to say. Here is a close-up of his wrist:
It was the only apparel that wasn’t blatantly American worn by either debater (the Flag lapels, the colored ties, the traditional suits), which symbolizes just how important these issues are to our fair President. Mitt didn’t even bring a binder.