Pence-Harris debate: Here’s what body language experts will be watching at the VP showdown

Alex Woodward
·5 min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Plexiglass barriers between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence, who will be seated at least 12 feet apart from each other, were installed in the days leading up to the 2020 vice presidential debate, held as more than a dozen White House officials and members of Donald Trump’s inner circle have tested positive for the coronavirus.

The physical distance between them and lingering Covid-19 concerns, and how the candidates’ campaigns have responded to the public health crisis and its latest outbreak, will inform not just their remarks but their body language and overall tenor of the debate, analysts told The Independent.

The entrance

Debate viewers are likely to cast their first impressions that inform their perspective of the debate within the opening moments.

“Our limbic brain believes that the more energetic 'alpha’ candidate makes the best leader and the ‘alpha’ candidate is often seen as winning the debates,” said body language expert and motivational speaker Patti Wood, author of SNAP: Making the Most of First Impressions Body Language and Charisma.

She added: "Audiences often determine who they think is the ‘winner’ in a fraction of a second of seeing the candidates on stage together before the debates have started based on the nonverbal charismatic factors of likeability, attractiveness and power without noting the fourth of those four first impression factors, credibility."

The seating

Health officials have stressed that the plexiglass barriers do not block aerosols that could carry the virus. Staff preparing for the debate wore masks during demonstrations.

“It's stunning to see even those sitting in the chairs briefly pretending to be the candidates are taking more precautions than the real live debaters will be,” Ms Wood said. “So I think the audience needs to think of how they would feel to be that close for that long with someone who has had exposure to several people who have tested positive.”

The added risk – which Mr Pence has dismissed – could give him an advantage, Ms Wood said.

“Will she look scared? Will her body freeze or pull away, especially if Pence makes it a point to lean in and speak loudly and open his mouth wide,” she said.

The seated arrangement could “soften” his “masculine” advantage, she said.

“Audiences will be looking at this choice,” she said. “Is choosing the desks to cancel that noticeable difference, so it allows him to be more aggressive in his delivery without looking like a bully? Gender differences and stereotypes will play a role in these debates. Pence does not want to come across as mean, but he already does to a degree by forcing an in-person debate when he puts her at risk. Will he push more or less because of that?”

The emotions

Body language expert Blanca Cobb said viewers should follow the candidates’ facial expressions – a sign of contempt, where a corner of the mouth curves upward, signals moral superiority, she said.

Viewers also should follow how the candidates manage the stress of the debate – and whether they can rein in their likely frustration.

Ms Cobb said signs of stress include pulling their heads back slightly, blinking rapidly, and biting or pursing and rolling lips.

“Additionally, are their fingers/hands relaxed or tense?” she said. “Listen for changes in their tone of voice and what topic is causing their voice to change."

Anger, the strongest persuasive emotion, dominated the debate between the president and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden, Ms Wood said, but viewers are typically more attracted to candidates with broad emotional ranges.

Senator Harris “also smirks and glares when she feels she has achieved a ‘gotcha’ moment,” Ms Wood added. “But if Pence starts the smirk debates, we will know that he thinks he began with the upper hand because she agreed to debate with this potentially risky room set up.”

Ms Wood suggested viewers study the vice president’s smile – is it friendly and warm, or is he enjoying making his opponent risk her health?

“He can sometimes offer a smirky smile or pleasure when he feels superior and may not play well, considering the circumstances,” she said.

Crucially, body language experts have stressed the importance of paying attention to whether the candidates are even answering the questions in front of them.

“Or are they side stepping the questions?" Ms Cobb said. "If they are, then ask yourself why that might be.”

The gender dynamic

Senator Harris has endured gender stereotypes long before the former vice president tapped her for his running mate, but she also has been subject to what sociologists have called “controlling images", or stereotypical tropes that have been used to diminish black women.

Senator Harris, tapping into American anger that has become especially acute throughout the pandemic and 2020 elections, could face pressure to temper her emotions facing against a white candidate and audience, in an unprecedented debate between the first-ever vice presidential debate between a black woman and white incumbent.

“Any woman that ever had a man say to her, 'Why aren't you smiling?' know that men view their lack of smiling negatively," said Ms Wood. “I instruct men not to assume if they tease and joke with a woman, and she smiles, that she is pleased – she may be upset and angry but may have been raised with the gender-based admonition to cover her displeasure with a smile.”

Smiling "can make someone more attractive, appear more approachable and less dominant, and are interpreted differently based on gender,” Ms Wood said. “If Harris doesn't smile (a happy, sincere smile), voters may see her as aggressive and less attractive."

Ms Cobb said viewers should watch how they interact – whether they face each other when speaking and how they orient their postures.

“A straight posture when making important points signals that the candidate feels strongly about what they're saying,” she said. “Does one turn away from the other when speaking or listening? Turning away from your opponent signals that their opponent and/or argument is baseless or unimportant.”

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