How to Grade the Presidential Debates
From body language to bluster, learn what to watch for when the candidates face off.
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
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
debate scorecard. Use it to determine which candidate you think
communicates most effectively in each debate.