The Blog

Obama and Romney Without Words

When citizens vote for the leader of their country, they are choosing an authority figure, and they want that person to appear authoritative.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

In the aftermath of the election, political pundits have inundated the media and the web with postmortem analyses of the results, most of them attributing Barack Obama's victory to his get-out-the-vote "ground game," others to the president's advertising campaign, some to Mitt Romney's "47%" video, some to the Latino, Asian, and African-American, and women's voting blocs, some to campaign finances, and some even to Hurricane Sandy.

Allow me to chime in with what is my admittedly parochial point of view by giving due credit to the candidates' presentation styles. When citizens vote for the leader of their country, they are choosing an authority figure, and they want that person to appear authoritative. Single issues such as the economy, jobs, climate control, immigration, family values, foreign policy, and women's rights notwithstanding, voters are seeking a father (and someday, maybe, a mother) figure, which, by any measure, is a gut decision. They are impelled more by their hearts than their minds. "Who's your Daddy?"

Andrew Kohut agrees. He is the president of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan "fact tank" that did extensive public opinion polling during the election. In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Kohut wrote, "Postelection talk of 'lessons learned' is often exaggerated and misleading." He then went on to add:

In particular, they are paying too little attention to how weak a candidate Mitt Romney was... Just 47% of exit-poll respondents viewed him favorably, compared with 53% for Mr. Obama. Throughout the campaign, Mr. Romney's favorable ratings were among the lowest recorded for a presidential candidate in the modern era. A persistent problem was doubt about his empathy with the average voter. By 53% to 43%, exit-poll respondents said that Mr. Obama was more in touch than Mr. Romney with people like themselves.

James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, goes even further than Mr. Kohut. A veteran political watcher who has covered many elections since his days as Jimmy Carter's speechwriter, Mr. Fallows wrote an article for the September issue of the magazine in anticipation of the 2012 presidential debates in which he referenced a political meme:

...the easiest way to judge "victory" in many debates is to watch with the sound turned off, so you can assess the candidates' ease, tenseness, humor, and other traits signaled by their body language.

Mr. Fallows' words echo a noted study (noted in the presentation trade) conducted by Professor Albert Mehrabian of the Department of Psychology at UCLA. The study ranked the relative impact of the three key dynamics of interpersonal communication:

Verbal: Content

Vocal: Voice

Visual: Body language

The results: the body language had the greatest impact, the voice next, while the story had the least impact--substantiation of the "sound turned off" premise.

You can see further substantiation in two events on the culminating night of the 2012 election: Mr. Obama's victory speech and Mr. Romney's concession speech. Granted that one man was feeling lift of exhilaration and the other the pain of defeat, but by viewing each speech (via the YouTube links)--with the sound turned off--you'll readily see why Mr. Obama had a ten point advantage in the Pew Research exit polls.

Watch for three visual factors:

Both men read their speeches from teleprompters, but as Mr. Romney shifted from between the teleprompter panels, his eyes darted an instant before his head turned, making him appear furtive. Mr. Obama turned his eyes and head at the same time, making him appear to be connecting directly with his audience.

Gestures: Mr. Romney made minimal use of his hands and arms, appearing constrained, while Mr. Obama used his hands and arms expressively, appearing animated and enthusiastic.

Stance: Mr. Romney stood either ramrod straight or leaning back, while Mr. Obama repeatedly leaned forward to his audience. As Mr. Kohut said, "exit-poll respondents said that Mr. Obama was more in touch than Mr. Romney."

"Who's your Daddy?"

Before You Go

Popular in the Community