The Importance of Facial Expressions in a Presidential Debate: A Story In GIFs

In a presidential debate, it's important not only what the candidates say but also how they say it.

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Historically, how a candidate fares in a presidential debate depends not only on what he or she says but also how he or she says it. False smiles, toothy smiles, eye blinks and darting eyes—these are the expressions that appear in reaction shots, and in the moments that are replayed for days after the debates.

When President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney take the stage at the first presidential debate in Denver Wednesday night, their facial expressions will be just as important as their answers to probing questions.

[VIEW: Gallery: Political Cartoons of Obama Making Excuses, Romney Taking Abuses]

To better understand the implications of these smiles and blinks, Whispers turned to two experts on non-verbal communication, Erik Bucy, a professor at Texas Tech University's college of media and communication, and Patrick Stewart, an associate professor of political science at the University of Arkansas.

To better predict what we can expect from Obama and Romney Wednesday night, Whispers turned to their facial expression histories as recorded on video and in animated GIFs.

Lessons From the Past

Bucy says a mistake Romney and Obama need to avoid Wednesday is smiling too much or at weird times. "If you remember [Democratic candidate] Walter Mondale in 1984, his smile would appear out of nowhere, and it seemed inappropriate," says Bucy. "Smiles are used by effective communicators to reassure and show a leader-like position."

Bucy also warns candidates against giving emotionless responses. He cites the famous example of Michael Dukakis's response to a debate question in 1988. When moderator Bernard Shaw asked if the Democratic candidate supported the death penalty if his wife had been raped and murdered by the killer, Dukakis delivered a icy cold look.

"Dukakis got labeled the 'ice man' after that debate because he didn't slough the question off, or act in a sincere way like [President Bill] Clinton might have," says Bucy. "He was short in his response ... and it was in a way people didn't think was appropriate."

Also worth avoiding: eye rolls, or a deer-in-the-headlights look.

Democratic candidate Al Gore sighed and gave a pronounced eye roll when debating George W. Bush in 2000, which Stewart says "destroyed" his debate performance. "You don't want to look impolite," he added.

A candidate also doesn't want to look caught off guard by a question, according to Bucy. George W. Bush, for example, looked "flat-footed" in a number of reaction shots from the 2004 debate with Democratic candidate John Kerry, according to Bucy. "You see him do a double take, and his eyes go wide open," says Bucy. "He weathered that, but Romney certainly doesn't want to go there."

Obama and Romney: Their Signature Looks

The video record of past facial expressions by Romney and Obama, put together in a paper by Stewart, Bucy and Marc Mehu at the University of Geneva, gives a clue as to what we might expect from the candidates on Wednesday night.

In two videos of Romney from a 2011 CPAC meeting, the former Massachusetts governor uses a "controlled-false smile" and then a "contempt smile," evidenced in part by the way he pulls up his lips, according to the three professors.

Neither of those smiles is a good thing.

"Romney has a tendency to -- especially when he makes biting comments -- pulls up the lips in more of a disgust display," says Stewart. "That's part of his problem in connecting with voters."

Both candidates will need more natural smiles to connect with their audience, something Obama is better at, according to Stewart and Bucy. In the following videos from the White House Correspondents Dinner, Obama exhibits what the professors call an "amusement smile" and then a "controlled smile."

"Obama has a better smile," says Stewart. "He is more likely to let his jaw loose, an indicator of his comfortability."

Romney, on the other hand, "is a very controlled individual. ... He really only gives an amusement smile when his running mate [Paul] Ryan joins him in a speech."

But that doesn't mean Obama has the smile advantage. Bucy says Romney is likely to smile more often than Obama on Wednesday, and Stewart says Obama needs to work on having a broader range of expressions, a problem evidenced in the following video of what Buzzfeed called the president's "robot smile."

Barack Obama's amazingly consistent smile from Eric Spiegelman on Vimeo.

How to Know a Candidate is Losing (Or Thinks He's Losing) the Debate

One of the best "tells" showing a candidate on the ropes during a debate: Count how many times they blink their eyes.

Stewart says he has actually counted eye blinks as part of his research, which "are a pretty decent indicator of how much stress someone is going through." According to the Atlantic Wire, John McCain blinked 100 times a minute in a 2008 debate, while Obama blinked only 41 times a minute.

Negative emotions can also be detected through the showing of bottom teeth (which indicates anger), darting eyes (which indicates evasiveness), or an odd posture (which indicates fear), according to Stewart and Bucy

How to Know a Candidate is Winning (Or Thinks He's Winning) the Debate

Humor, humor, humor.

"Humor shows the audience [you are] likable." says Stewart. "They are the comments that will get replayed. A Hail Mary [for a candidate] comes most often in the form of humor."

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.