The final presidential debate is over at last, and we’re left with a feeling that Stephen Colbert, in his Late Show monologue (via The Washington Post), described as being akin to “getting our last wisdom tooth taken out,” saying “Yes, it hurt, and yes, we can still taste the blood in our mouths.” While there was a lot less muting going on than some of us might have expected, still, many feel that moderator Kristen Welker did an excellent job of keeping both candidates on track.
How did the candidates themselves feel about their last debate, however? (At least, we sincerely hope it will be their last one, barring some freakishly unprecedented need for a runoff vote, but if this year’s taught us anything, it’s that nothing is off the table.) Once again, The List turned to a body language specialist for some expert advice. Joseph Hoelscher, who puts his body language-reading skills to good use in his practice as a managing attorney at Hoelscher Gebbia Cepeda PLLC in San Antonio, paid close attention to Joe Biden’s debate performance and shared his insights with us.
Biden's face showed his feelings
One “tell” that indicates someone’s sincerity, or lack thereof, is their blink rate, which Hoelscher says tends to increase when people are stressed (as may be the case when they are lying). Biden’s blink rate, he says, was “generally in a normal range for someone on stage,” something that “indicates confidence” and is “consistent with honesty.”
Another sign that many of us are less aware of is how someone’s complexion can reveal their state of mind. Hoelscher describes Biden as initially appearing pale and looking older than usual, which he attributes to “nerves from waiting” since “nervousness can cause blood to leave the surface of the skin as part of a flight or fight response.” As Biden warmed up to the debate topics, however, his face seemed to warm up, as well, a sign that he seemed to be relaxing. Hoelscher did note that Biden’s face reddened, an indicator of an increased heart rate, upon two occasions: once when he spoke about immigration issues and another time when he was talking about the environment and the detrimental effects of pollution. According to Hoelscher, Biden’s red face was a clear sign that “he is genuinely passionate about those issues.”
Joe Biden only got defensive at one point
As Biden admitted ahead of time (via ABC News), he came into the debate expecting to be attacked on a personal level, and spent several days prior to the event preparing to deal with all of the mud he anticipated would be slung in his direction. When the expected happened and Trump began accusing both Biden and his son Hunter of being corrupt and taking money from suspicious sources, Hoelscher noted that Biden put his shoulder forward and his head down and looked at the podium rather than the camera. This could be interpreted as a defensive posture, one that sees the candidate “closing himself off from the audience.”
When he spoke to defend himself against these allegations, Biden looked ahead and extended his arm in what Hoelscher saw as an aggressive posture, and here his blink rate seemed to be more controlled than natural. While these indicators do not mean he was being dishonest here, they do show that Biden’s response to these accusations was, as he’d already indicated, a well-rehearsed one.
Two other moments came across as 'canned'
There were just a few of Biden’s talking points that seemed like he might have over-rehearsed, to the point where they came across as too rote. When he suddenly switched to his “It’s your family” speech (echoing, practically word-for-word, advice offered by Rahm Emanuel in pre-debate coverage), it seemed fairly obvious that these were well-practiced lines that he’d been waiting for an opportunity to insert. He also messed up the line about a bereaved spouse reaching out to feel an empty spot in the bed — despite the fact that Biden, himself, knows the pain of losing a spouse and his empathy for those in similar situations is no doubt genuine, the fact that he struggled to get the words out indicated to Hoelscher that it was a not-quite-memorized line. (Biden, a lifelong stutterer, does tend to trip over his words from time to time.)
Biden also didn’t do so well with an attempt to create a “relatable moment” regarding race relations, Hoelscher says that the candidate’s “effort to remember his story become obvious,” and a gesture he made of touching his nose after speaking was “a sign of insecurity.” As Biden spent eight years serving as vice-president to our nation’s first African American leader, his record on race relations pretty much speaks for itself, but he nevertheless exhibited a little difficulty in speaking on this sensitive subject.
Overall, Biden seemed both honest and confident
Throughout the debate, Biden’s open stance was, as Hoelscher says, not only an indicator of honesty, but one that “primarily reflects confidence.” Biden, he says, “didn’t show the signs of someone who felt the stress of trying to fabricate or create a false impression,” although at times the candidate “struggled with his contempt for Trump.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his opinion of his opponent, Hoelscher says Biden clearly shows signs of believing he won the debate, such as putting his pen away early and smiling and appearing relaxed after checking his watch around the 90-minute mark (a pretty relatable move, actually). The body language expert also mentions Biden’s “conspiratorial manner with one eyebrow cocked,” upon delivering his closing remarks about “decency, honor, [and] respect” since it seemed the candidate felt that everyone in the audience would be on board with what he was saying. “Taken altogether,” Hoelscher concludes, “Joe Biden was being genuine about who he perceives himself to be: an unapologetic Democrat,” although it may well be that decency, honor, et all play well across both sides of the aisle.
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