Health guidelines and restrictions in place during the Covid-19 pandemic have complicated expectations for presidential debates, when body language experts and election analysts spend weeks scrutinising how the candidates shake hands and interact on- and off-camera.
On 29 September, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, two men whose distinct physical movements and gestures have drawn considerable scrutiny throughout their careers, will appear together in their first of three planned debates during an event at Ohio’s Case University.
There will be just one moderator: Fox News correspondent Chris Wallace.
Mr Trump – who largely avoids eye contact, interrupts other speakers and lunges with his handshakes – feeds off the energy of large crowds with unstructured remarks and has spent the last several weeks in front of thousands of supporters, ignoring health guidelines, revelling in the attention and repeating phrases and lines of attack against his opponents.
In meetings and interviews, the president often grows defensive and combative when presented with facts that contradict him.
Mr Biden, meanwhile, has throughout the pandemic mostly addressed intimate groups and a reporting pool to deliver remarks, which are also broadcast, and has famously campaigned throughout the career by focussing on one-on-one interactions and speaking directly with people in crowds.
His brand of politicking has relied on empathetic storytelling that reflects on past tragedy and trauma. But prior to the pandemic, the former vice president – drawn into personal conversation – was often restless and combative with voters who questioned him.
With a limited in-person audience, if any, and millions of viewers watching them at home, how the candidates appear through their gestures, facial expressions and other nonverbal communications reveals as much about them as their remarks, body language experts told The Independent.
“Debates are about audiences,” body language expert Blanca Cobb said. “You can engage people who are looking – you might radiate more, versus just looking into a camera or at your opponent.”
The candidates receive “a lot of nonverbals from the audience, transmitted from yourself to who you’re speaking to who or with,” she said.
But without them, “you’re focusing on that one person," she said.
Depending how the candidates are framed by the cameras, viewers may not be able to pick up on certain cues – playing with pens, tapping legs, clenching hands, gripping the lectern – but can focus on facial expressions and tones of voice that communicate trustworthiness and earnestness.
Their first appearances will immediately colour the viewers’ perception throughout, which may cloud how viewers watch and receive their remarks, said body language expert and motivational speaker Patti Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language & Charisma.
Viewers should instead find tactile ways to pay close attention to how, or if, they are answering the questions – write them down and check whether they’ve actually answered them to process the debate “logically, instead of getting frustrated or mad,” she said.
“You can really get a sense of whether they’re answering the direct question, but also listen to their specific words" – are they using pronouns to deflect ("I" versus “we”) or being indecisive ("think, probably, maybe, perhaps"), Ms Cobb said.
Cross-talk and interruptions can exert authority and attempt to show voters that the candidate can “see that for what it is but also extrapolate to other situations” while trying to direct the discussion to their own agenda, Ms Cobb said.
“It’s about influence, it’s about control, it’s about being the captain of the ship – ‘I want to control the way you see me’,” she said.
The second debate between Mr Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016 was marked by Mr Trump’s press conference held just hours before it started with four women who accused the Clintons of wrongdoing. They were also invited to watch the debate.
The candidates did not shake hands when they walked out, and Mr Trump circled candidate Clinton, looming over her as she tried to speak on the floor.
That rule-breaking behaviour in 2016 has set a kind of precedent, Ms Wood said, that has turned the stage into a space to exert an “alpha”-like presence.
The stakes are critically high, during a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans under an incumbent that has signalled that he could refuse to accept the results of the election, should he lose it.
Mr Trump has spent weeks at campaign rallies and rally-like White House events, criticising his opponent and leveraging nonstop media attention to antagonise him.
“Trump can be like a standup comic that wants to hear the laugh or the jeer,” Ms Wood said. “It’s much more difficult when you’re not getting that feedback.”
With the president in a more restrained setting, body language experts will be watching who he turns to for similar reactions and whether he performs for a crowd of one compared to a crowd filling an airplane hangar.
“That feeds him for the rest of his speaking,” Ms Wood said. “If he doesn’t get that from his audience, he won’t have the same energy.”
His “narcissism is on full display” through his physical presence, she said, but the president has a dramatically different, often-monotone delivery when reading from a teleprompter.
While Mr Biden often gestures with his arms and hands, the president will cross his arms when he doesn’t like a question or doesn't like what someone else is saying, or uses “symbolic weapons gestures” like pointing his fingers, she said.
Experts said viewers should also pay attention to the more subtle moments – how they greet one another, what they do when they reach their lecterns, and what they do with themselves or if there’s a break and when the debate ends.
“People turn on when the cameras are off,” Ms Wood said. “Notice those times, because to me that is when they’re not performing.”