Three of the Republican Presidential candidates share an unmistakable flaw, but thankfully for two of them, this ought to be easily rectified.
Effective communication is 55% non-verbal, 38% tone of voice and 7% word choice. Imagine how this fact has changed the course of American politics during our country’s history. At our nation’s outset, politicians communicated with the people primarily through the written word. Written by the candidates and written by the press about the candidates. Very few Americans would have had a chance to actually hear a candidate in person. Consequently, word choice was vital. Go back and read the speeches of our founding fathers. They had time and reason, to edit, study and prepare for what they put in writing. Their speaking voice, their appearance, their carriage all had little practical bearing on the outcome of an election.
In the early 20th century, radio came into vogue and increased the ability of candidates to get their message out. Many if not most Americans had a chance to actually hear the candidates speak. Decisions were made not just on word choice, but also on tone of voice, on presentation and oratory skills.
And then in 1960, everything changed. On September 26, 1960, 70 million viewers tuned in to watch Senator John F. Kennedy debate Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the first televised presidential debate. In polls after the debate, those who listened on the radio felt Nixon had won the debate. However, television viewers had an opposite reaction. Nixon entered the debate after two weeks in the hospital with a knee problem. Twenty pounds underweight, he also refused any make-up. Kennedy, however, had just been campaigning in California and was tan and fit. Television viewers perceived Kennedy to be the overwhelming victor.
The effect of television on presidential politics is not the central issue of this column. Rather, having acknowledged its place as the primary factor on which candidates are judged, let’s address three Republican candidates who are being hurt by the televised debates, and I’ll begin with the easiest one to rectify—Congressman Duncan Hunter.
I have had the opportunity to interview Congressman Hunter and was impressed. I like much of what he says and how he says it. However, when I watch the televised forums, he doesn’t come off nearly as well. I watched him closely to determine the reason. My conclusion: his posture is horrible. First, he has a tendency to lean on the podium. He will, casually, lower his left elbow to the podium. I suspect this is a manifestation of his comfort on stage and with his response. However, it comes across to the audience as condescending and un-presidential. It lacks the stiff-backed carriage of a man in charge. It reeks of age and the need for a break.
Additionally, and less perceptibly, is the way in which he cocks his head. I’ve never been happy with the placement of the stage far above the questioners because it forces them all to look down at the moderator when giving answers. Consequently, they are all “looking down” on America as they answer and have a tendency to appear condescending. Congressman Hunter’s head tilt is something else. He cocks it slightly to the right and draws his chin in almost imperceptibly. The result is not just condescending, as if he is bemused if not completely tolerant of the dribble being directed his way. Additionally, it is legislative. It has all the hallmarks of a man ready and willing to capitulate. His tone is forceful and fine; his words well chosen and thoughtful, but his manner suggests a man too long in the business of compromise and consensus building and uncomfortable with leadership and decision making.
Congressman Hunter served in Vietnam. I suspect that his drill sergeant in boot camp told him to stand up straight and put his shoulders back and down. He needs to heed that advice once again.
Congressman Ron Paul, too, has a malady with an easy fix, though his is not in the 55% non verbal realm. His is in the 38% tone category. Clearly a man passionate about his work and our Constitution, Congressman Paul brings that passion to the stage. When asked questions he responds with the ranting and vitriol of a man who knows his voice will never be heard. It’s as if he knows this is his one and only shot to get his message out and he wants desperately to get through to America. And yet the ranting is weak and un-presidential. Congressman Paul needs to trust himself and America to deliver and receive the message, respectively. He needs to speak firmly of our Constitutional responsibilities, but not rant about our failings. There’s panic in his voice and no one wants a President who panics. Calm down, Congressman Paul—sometimes less is more.
Lastly, and most problematic is Governor Romney. Governor Romney is showing himself to be a prideful man in the worst ways. His pride is showing up as a request for validation rather than a solidifying source of strength. Think of those men of whom it is said at their funeral, “He was a proud man.” Usually this means a man who was strong, who depended on himself, who wouldn’t accept handouts; a man for whom personal dignity was important. These can all be wonderful traits of strength. But then there are other proud men, impressed with their own characteristics, vainly seeking admiration. These are men for whom pride is a sign of weakness of character. This is the pride I’m seeing from Governor Romney. He displays it frequently and it shows up like this: Governor Romney answers a question and then he lifts his head, looks at his fellow candidates and smiles the smile of one who is smugly impressed with his own answer. It is both arrogant (as in, “Top that answer, boys?”) and self serving (“Did you see how smoothly I maneuvered through that monologue?”).
Unfortunately for Governor Romney, if these non-verbal cues are an accurate reflection of his feelings they will be nearly impossible to change. These are not the types of things that are easily coached out of a candidate.
On the other hand, there is another prideful gesture Governor Romney makes which should be easy to fix: the position of his hands. He frequently, puts his hands in front of him on the podium touching the fingertips together. It could be fine, but given the aforementioned position of the stage above the moderators and his propensity to smile serenely when not speaking, it creates the impression of a man looking over the top of half-moon spectacles at a lesser person, gladly suffering fools. To fix this malady, he could either lose the smile or the hand gesture–either ought to effectively change the non-verbal message being communicated.
Does any of this matter? It certainly does. We DO judge books by their cover. And we do often say, “I don’t like him. I don’t know why, I just don’t.” Politicians today more than ever need to study their body language as much as their briefing material. In all likelihood, American voters will elect the person they FEEL the best about, not the one who has the best things to say.