By Richard S. Dunham There is a curious disconnect between the pundits and the people in Campaign '04. After the three Presidential debates between John Kerry and President Bush, the consensus among the pundits is that only one encounter -- the Sept. 30 showdown at the University of Miami -- produced a clear winner. But voters surveyed after the debates by independent pollsters, Democrats, and even some Republican operatives gave the edge in each debate to challenger Kerry.
Is the Inside the Beltway gang out of touch with the Average Joe in Racine, Wis. or Henderson, Nev.? Perhaps. But after talking to a leading communications consultant to corporate CEOs, I'd like to posit an alternate theory: While both candidates scored some points during their sharp policy exchanges, Kerry was superior in nonverbal communication. When it came to facial expressions and body language, the challenger seemed more confident, more comfortable, and, yes, more Presidential.
"BUG EYES." That's not just a bit of amateur psychology from a longtime political observer. It's the conclusion of Dan Hill, president of Sensory Logic, a St. Paul, Minn.-based company that helps execs communicate through nonverbal means. "Bush had a tendency to lack gravitas," said Hill. "He was coached to be engaging and warm, but there were moments when it could seem flippant. When there was serious subject matter, he would [occasionally] flash an inappropriate smile."
Hill's company analyzes the psycho-physiological responses of consumers to products and services by studying 43 distinct facial muscle movements. The author of the book Body of Truth, he applies the same kinds of tests to the two products being marketed in the '04 campaign. His conclusion: Over the course of the debates, the President's body language was inappropriate when faced with harsh criticism from Kerry or tough questions from moderators or town-hall meeting participants.
"He'd show fear on his face," says Hill. "His eyebrows go up and he gets 'bug eyes' -- his eyes go wide for a moment." When challenged, the Pres sometimes lapsed into an upside-down smile, which, Hill says, reflects "a combination of anger, disgust, and sadness."
BYE-BYE, FLIP-FLOPPER. Throughout the encounters, the nonpartisan corporate-communications specialist zeroed in on Bush's nonverbal signals. There were "social smiles, combined with a smirk," he says -- plus a tight-mouthed expression that connoted anger and tension. Taken as a whole, "it created the impression that 'this job is starting to get to me.'"
In grading the candidates' performances, Hill gives Kerry a B+ in the first two debates and a B in the third. He scores Bush a D+ in Debate 1, B- in the second, and a solid B in the final one.
Kerry's biggest accomplishment? "He succeeded through facial expressions in putting to rest the image of a flip-flopper," says Hill. "He looked engaged. He looked principled. He looked steady. His demeanor conveyed someone who could be a commander."
KERRY'S SMILE SHORTAGE. That's not to say that every American will suddenly forget that Kerry is the guy who reminded us that he voted for that $87 billion aid package for U.S. troops before he voted against it. And while his body language connoted strength, the Democratic nominee wasn't as successful in the debates at coming across as an average guy. "As a person, he didn't really get there," concludes Hill. "He's too cerebral -- not warm enough."
Kerry also may have hurt his prospects with what some voters saw as a gratuitous reference to Mary Cheney, the lesbian daughter of Vice-President Dick Cheney, during the third and last debate. The most recent polls have shown Bush again with a slight lead in the horse race.
But Hill says Kerry scored in the last debate when he joked that he had "traded up" by marrying billionaire ketchup heiress Teresa Heinz Kerry. "He showed a genuine smile," says Hill. "If he'd only done that more often..."
REGAINING SELF-CONTROL. During the debates, Kerry seemed most genuine when he talked about the budget, taxes, and building international alliances. "It shows in his face," says Hill. "Working with the allies and [closing] the deficit moves Kerry." His comment directly into the camera that he wouldn't raise middle-class taxes was a hit, Hill said. He also showed "real conviction and a degree of anger about the deficit," according to Hill. "Bush showed no emotion when he talked about the deficit."
That wasn't the case when the President talked about some favorite subjects, however. "Bush showed emotion [while talking about] defending the country, education, and tax cuts," Hill observes.
At the same time, the incumbent sometimes showed inappropriate emotion when criticized or asked a pointed question. "In the first debate, he was an agitated, peevish person upset that he had to answer questions about his Presidency," says Hill. "In the second debate, he was coached to control his facial expressions but there was some evidence of hectoring. In the third debate, almost all of the negatives were washed away."
NOT BUSH'S ARENA. Bush communicated most naturally with the audience when he was attacking Kerry's Senate record. "He showed a genuine smile," says Hill. "He obviously was eager to deliver that line about [Ted] Kennedy" being the most conservative senator from Massachusetts.
The President was less eager to answer an unexpected question about the current flu- vaccine shortage. "He showed an upside-down smile connoting anger mixed with sadness," says Hill. "At the end of his answer, his mouth hung open, signaling a mix of fear and surprise, meaning, 'I hope you will buy that answer.'"
Hill, who has been watching the field of Presidential candidates all year, says that the debate format was particularly ill-suited to Bush's communications skills: "He feeds a lot better off an audience he can develop a rapport with."
That's what the incumbent will do for the final two weeks of the campaign. He'll speak to adoring crowds. Huge audiences. With nary a tough question to answer. Doubtless his body language will improve. But can it rescue him from the nonverbal messages he sent during the debates? Dunham is BusinessWeek's Washington Outlook editor