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How to Grade the Presidential Debates

From body language to bluster, learn what to watch for when the candidates face off.
By Sherry Rauh
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

As the presidential debates get under way, history suggests what the candidates say may not be as important as how they say it.

The first presidential debate to be televised took place in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. Reactions to this debate changed presidential politics forever, says Kellie Roberts, head coach of the University of Florida's Speech and Debate Team.

"People who listened on the radio thought Nixon won," Roberts tells WebMD. But those who watched on television declared Kennedy the winner. He had better posture and "looked presidential," she says. "People became more aware of the importance of how things look, and that has affected strategies in debates ever since."

The Impact of Presidential Debates

Debates rarely sway voters who have already made a tentative choice, says Larry J. Sabato, PhD, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "But sometimes," he tells WebMD, "if one candidate does particularly well or commits an embarrassing gaffe, a debate can tilt the undecided voters strongly in one direction. There is no question that the debates helped elect John Kennedy in 1960, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Bill Clinton in 1992."

What is special about presidential debates, says executive coach Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is that they offer a chance to glimpse the candidates unscripted. In scripted speeches, "body language cues as well as rhetoric are honed by coaches," says Goman, who is the author of The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. In debates, "people are much more vulnerable and their body cues are much more available."

The Role of Body Language

Ideally, debates "should be all about the content of the message," Roberts says. "However, research shows about 70% of our message comes from what we do nonverbally -- posture, the use of space, how we use our voice, how we gesture and use our bodies."

These signals provide emotional cues to back up verbal arguments, Goman tells WebMD. Whether you are a business executive promoting a vision for your company or a politician promoting a vision for your country, body language and rhetoric must be in sync. "If your words are saying, 'trust me,' but your body language is not, you've just derailed your message."

With that in mind, WebMD consulted with speech and body language experts to create a debate scorecard. Use it to determine which candidate you think communicates most effectively in each debate.

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