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Palin and Biden: The Big Debate


Who won the debate? Neither VP candidate made any major nonverbal gaffe that could seriously damage their party's chances in November

Remember 1992? Ross Perot was gaining in popularity and in the polls. But during the vice-presidential debate, his running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, memorably and regrettably said, "Who am I? Why am I here?" It was a remark that seemed to capture his performance that day. As the debate unfolded, a learned and respected war hero came across as confused and ineffective through his nonverbal behaviors.

While words are important, people pay more attention to the way those words are said. As much as 93% of communication is nonverbal, and that was a costly reality for Stockdale, who stumbled over his words and appeared uneasy and nervous. Indeed, ineffective and out-of-the-ordinary nonverbal behaviors have huge repercussions.

A big question going into the Oct. 2 debate between the vice-presidential candidates was this: Would the "Stockdale Factor" come into play in the McCain and Obama campaigns? Would Palin's speech pattern be smoother and better connected in Thursday night's debate than in her recent interview with Katie Couric? Could Biden be perceived as non-combative, or would he be seen as patronizing and aggressive through his well-known assertiveness and sometimes bold nonverbal style, his tone of voice, and his gestures?

From her opening remark about the economy, Palin looked directly at the camera, much like Barack Obama did in the first Presidential debate (BusinessWeek, 9/29/08). During times such as these, people are looking for visionary, empathetic leaders who can easily connect with them and solve their problems.

By contrast, Biden did not look at the camera during his opening remarks about the economy. For the next several questions, Biden continued to speak to the moderator, using Gwen Ifill's name several times as if he were carrying a conversation just with her. Compared to Palin, he shut out the viewing public. However, as soon as Biden talked about the middle class, he spoke into the camera, and appeared as if he were talking not to the moderator, but to the people at home.

Biden was very effective with the camera when emphasizing his points. Throughout the debate, Palin looked into the camera more than Biden and this helped her connect more with those watching. But both used the camera in their own way to connect with the television viewer effectively.

From a nonverbal perspective, Biden did a wonderful job of not directly attacking Palin. Many were wondering whether Biden would come across like George H.W. Bush did in 1984, when he debated fellow vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. In one of the more famous interchanges, Bush was talking about foreign policy and many thought that through his verbal and nonverbal communication, he did so condescendingly. She responded: "I almost resent, Vice-President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy." That hurt Bush in the debate.

Nothing like that occurred Thursday night. In fact, several times, Biden genuinely smiled while Palin either addressed him or spoke to the camera. Several times, he nodded in agreement while she talked. Some would believe that this showed that Biden agreed with what Palin said. I saw it as a sign of acknowledgment and that he was respectfully listening to her.

The candidates had very different postures. Biden did not move around much, but his upright, straight posture conveyed confidence. Several times when Palin talked, she seemed to lean on one side or another, to try and seem more relaxed. It was probably another way Palin attempted to connect with the "Joe six packs" and "hockey moms" or average American families, trying to show that she is like them and isn't a stereotypical stiff politician. Her folksy winks also made her seem more like an everyday person, not a Washington insider. But some could view such moves as distracting; they could be seen as fidgety or showing nervousness.

Biden's most striking moment was when he spoke about how he understood what it meant to be a single parent and to wonder if a child would survive. He got choked up and briefly became emotional. Some would see this as weakness. Yet this display of emotion ran counter to Biden's reputation that he is assertive and aggressive and served to humanize him.

Research at the Center for Creative Leadership shows that one of the reasons high-potential managers and executives derail or fail is because they could not successfully choose and build a team. The same is true for any Presidential hopeful. Selecting a vice-president to be part of the President's "team" is the most important, most publicized and scrutinized choice for each Presidential hopeful. How the vice-presidential candidates perform in their debate directly reflects on their Presidential running mate and his ability to effectively lead and make the right decisions.

From a nonverbal perspective the Obama camp should be proud that Biden was not baited into a Bush/Ferraro-type fiasco. He appeared respectful to his opponent, and he was succinct. The McCain camp should be thrilled that Palin was clear and coherent; with the flow of her speech pattern much smoother than we've seen from her recently. More than Biden, she looked directly into the camera to try and connect with the America people.

There were no huge nonverbal mistakes on either candidate's part. But it will be interesting to see if the post-debate polls reflect whether Palin's performance makes people forget about the the nonverbal missteps from the previous week. Biden's posture, his selective connecting with the audience, and the respect with which he treated Palin lead me to think Biden won. Though Palin did well from a nonverbal perspective and outperformed expectations, her nonverbal mistakes over the past week may be too much to overcome.

William A. Gentry, Ph.D. is a senior research associate at the Center for Creative Leadership, a global nonprofit focused exclusively on leadership education and research.

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