Grading the First Presidential Debate

Experts Analyze Body Language and Speech Patterns in the First Debate

From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 27, 2008 -- If you watched the first presidential debate between Republican nominee Sen. John McCain and Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama, you probably have your own opinion of who won. Maybe you even graded the candidates with WebMD's Debate Scorecard. Now you can compare your take on the use of body language in the first debate with that of the pros.

WebMD turned once again to the speech and body language experts who helped construct the scorecard. The experts, who are not affiliated with either presidential campaign, are:

  • Debate Coach: Kellie Roberts, head coach of the University of Florida's Speech and Debate Team.
  • Media Coach: Tim Koegel, author of The Exceptional Presenter.
  • Executive Coach: Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, author of The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work.

Debate Scorecard

After watching the first presidential debate, the experts gave each candidate a score of 1 to 5 in the following categories, with 5 representing the best performance.

1. Message: Did the candidates get their messages across clearly and concisely?

Roberts: McCain - 4 Obama - 4 
Koegel: McCain - 4 Obama - 3
Goman:McCain - 4 Obama - 3
Average: McCain - 4 Obama - 3.3

"[McCain] was more definitive on the message," Koegel tells WebMD. He gave more specifics ... and did a better job of intertwining stories and examples." 

"McCain had more stories," Goman agrees, and that's what people remember "more than anything else." The Republican nominee also had better sound bites, she says. But both candidates "lacked details, particularly on the economy."

2. Speech Pattern: Did the candidates sound conversational without awkward pauses?

Roberts: McCain - 4 Obama - 3 
Koegel: McCain - 3.5 Obama - 3.5
Goman:McCain - 4 Obama - 4
Average: McCain - 3.8 Obama - 3.5

"[McCain] jumped in quickly," Roberts tells WebMD. "There was no hemming and hawing, no distinct pauses where he had to think about what he wanted to say." Obama, Roberts says, tended to "um" at the start of his answers until he built up some momentum. 

3. Tone of Voice
: Did the candidates sound confident, but not arrogant or angry?

Roberts: McCain - 3 Obama - 4 
Koegel: McCain - 5 Obama - 5
Goman:McCain - 2 Obama - 4
Average: McCain - 3.3 Obama - 4.3

"McCain had the most problems, because he often sounded condescending or scolding," Goman tells WebMD. "Seven times, McCain said Obama just doesn't get it or doesn't understand. One or two times might have been effective, but seven was over the top." 

Roberts agrees. "McCain sounded somewhat aggressive," she says, while Obama's tone "sent a message that he was in command, comfortable and relaxed." She added that Obama could have conveyed a little more emotion.

But Koegel says both candidates "were right where they needed to be. Had they exceeded the energy and passion level of last night," it might have been too much.


4. Posture: Did the candidates stand up straight with their heads held high?

Roberts: McCain - 4 Obama - 4 
Koegel: McCain - 4.5 Obama - 4.5
Goman:McCain - 3 Obama - 4
Average: McCain - 3.8 Obama - 4.2

"They both stood fairly tall," Goman says, but McCain lost points for "shifting his weight a lot more than Obama." She also pointed out that McCain never turned his body toward Obama. "Obama shifted his body and head to face McCain when addressing him ... a respectful body language cue."

5. Gestures:Did the candidates use natural, fluid gestures?

Roberts: McCain - 3 Obama - 5 
Koegel: McCain - 3 Obama - 4.5
Goman:McCain - 3 Obama - 4
Average: McCain - 3 Obama - 4.5

"Obama uses his hands very freely and makes definitive gestures, which reflects comfort," Koegel says. He adds that McCain was "about as effective as he could be with gestures," considering that his motion is limited by his war injuries.

"They both used authentic gestures," Goman says, but these were not always to their advantage. "[McCain] finger-pointed - not at Obama, but to make a point - two or three times. That's never a good thing." And while McCain was speaking, Obama looked at the moderator and held up his index finger. This may be a polite gesture, but Goman felt it looked like a child in class. "He doesn't need to ask permission [to speak]," she says.

6. Facial Expressions: Did the candidates smile sincerely and make good eye contact?

Roberts: McCain - 3 Obama - 4 
Koegel: McCain - 3 Obama - 3
Goman:McCain - 2 Obama - 4
Average: McCain - 2.7 Obama - 3.7

"This is where I saw the most interesting stuff," Goman says. "McCain has a problem with his smiles." They tend to look "odd" or "frozen" at times. In addition, "McCain never looked at Obama. He barely looked at him when they shook hands" and was always looking somewhere else when Obama was speaking. "From a body language standpoint, it doesn't look gracious. It doesn't look respectful."

Roberts agrees that McCain lost points for poor eye contact. He didn't look at Obama, the audience or the television camera, she says. "He only had eye contact with Jim Lehrer [the moderator.]" Obama frequently looked directly at the camera, Roberts says, sending a message that "I am in control and I am talking to you."

Koegel has a different view of Obama's tendency to look into the camera. "It's more natural and conversational to look at the person asking the question," he tells WebMD. "Looking into the camera is more formal and more rigid."


Final Scores

Roberts says he thinks Obama's delivery gave him a slight edge, but overall there was no clear winner. Goman agrees. "I think they both won in their own way." McCain was clear in his message that "Obama is naive and not ready," she says, while Obama "was prepared, held his own and showed he had a right to be there."

Koegel pronounced the event "a very good debate for both candidates. From a delivery standpoint, they were both consistent." Their body language and tone of voice supported what they were saying and helped them define "who they are and where they stand."


WebMD does not endorse any specific political party, candidate, committee, idea or belief.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 27, 2008



Kellie Roberts, director of forensics, University of Florida Speech and Debate Team; interim director, Dial Center of Written and Oral Communication.

Tim Koegel, media coach and author, The Exceptional Presenter.

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, executive coach and author, The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work.

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