Body Language: What McCain and Obama Reveal

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., waves to the audience after his speech at the victory column in Berlin Thursday, July 24, 2008.

Barack Obama spoke in front of 200,000 Germans in Berlin on Thursday at the start of a European tour, while John McCain talked to small business leaders at a fourth-generation German restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. But regardless of the audience, people undoubtedly paid as much attention to the nonverbal performance as they did to what each presidential candidate said.

Body movement analysts say that McCain represents stability in how he stands firmly and holds onto the sides of a podium. By contrast, Obama has a forward-looking gaze and strolls about in a relaxed fashion during public appearances. Yet both men share an introspective quality that could make them strong leaders, each in his way.

"They represent very different ways of relating," said Karen Bradley, a professor at the University of Maryland who has served as a media consultant for outlets such as MSNBC's "Hardball" and The Washington Post.

Bradley and similar body movement experts often study dance, acting or physical therapy, but a system called Laban Movement Analysis can also explain what many American voters register only subconsciously when watching presidential candidates talk and move.

"It's a tool for looking at human movement," said Karen Studd, a professor at George Mason University in Washington, D.C. and media consultant alongside Bradley.

Breaking down the field

Bradley and Studd can analyze a person’s movements by going down a list of categories that include body, effort, space and shape, or they can start with the overall impression that anyone might have of a candidate.

"My approach has been to get an overall take rather than look in that [systematic] way," Studd told LiveScience. “I look through my own eyes and use [Laban] language and tools to clarify what I’m seeing.”

One example comes from how Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama take different approaches to gesturing. McCain uses directional gestures that suggest bridging a gap, while Obama’s shaping gestures that suggest accommodation, the analysts say.

McCain also sometimes adopts a right-left style of walking where he shifts his weight — not unlike a cowboy swagger if taken to extremes, Studd noted. That contrasts with Obama’s more centered movement where he swings the opposite arm with the opposite leg.

Obama's free flow approach may have its advantages, especially when it comes to public appearances where the candidates face hard questions.

"John McCain is ill at ease a lot, and Obama is rarely ill at ease although he's put on the spot," Bradley said. "John McCain sometimes looks like he's looking for the door, so he needs to work on that."

Candidates and first ladies

Still, Bradley and Studd picked out McCain early as a "strong candidate" after The Washington Post asked them to analyze a Republican candidates' debate at the end of last year. They also noted the warm charisma of Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who surprised many political analysts by challenging McCain for the Republican nomination up until March.

Another Republican contender who fared less well in the eyes of Bradley and Studd was Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is reportedly a possible vice presidential running mate for McCain.

More recent attention has focused on the relationship between the candidates and their wives. John and Cindy McCain often appear separately, or else Cindy tends to stand in the background.

"John McCain is a solitary guy," Bradley pointed out. "Cindy's making her own appearances, so we don’t get to see what their marriage is like."

That differs from Barack and Michelle Obama, who have often shared the stage together and demonstrated a team mentality.

"You'll see Michelle flow into the foreground at times," Studd said. She and Bradley agreed that "you get the sense of how a couple works together" in the Obamas.

New leadership style

Differences aside, both candidates share a surprising similarity that sets them apart from previous presidents.

"Both are very private, which is interesting because people wouldn't think that of them," Bradley observed. "There's a lot going on inside that we don't quite see."

That stands in contrast to President George W. Bush or President Clinton, whose outgoing ways mean that much of their thinking appears on their faces.

A private decision-making process bodes well for both McCain and Obama as leaders, Bradley and Studd agreed.

Make up your own mind

Come November, the body movement analysts do not want to tell voters who to support — that's what issues and personal preferences are for.

"We're not talking about the issues, because people can make up their own mind about issues," Bradley said.

Voters may still rely heavily on those nonverbal impressions of candidates, given their relative lack of knowledge about each candidate's stand on issues. No less than half of Americans said that they know "just some" or "very little" about the policy positions of McCain and Obama in a July poll conducted by the Pew Research Center.

People with opposing partisan views could even interpret the same body language differently.

"Someone who wants a candidate who is going to be tenacious and stay the course, they're going to read the stability in [McCain's] movement signature as a positive thing," Studd said. "Someone who wants change is going to see that as immovable."

The experts may do enough by simply telling voters what they can already sense but cannot put into words, because that creates a fuller picture of both candidates.

"We're all trained observers, because that's how we interact with the world before we developed language," Studd said.

Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.