Lessons Learned from Watching the Presidential Debate–On Mute

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We’ve all heard the tale of how Richard Nixon looked pale and sickly in 1960, when he took part in the first televised presidential debate against sun-kissed John F. Kennedy. Since that fateful night, pundits have never let us forget that debates are as much about what the voters see as what the candidates say. The mannerisms. The facial expressions. The pallor of their skin. So while my colleagues were busy monitoring and analyzing the substance of last night’s remarks, I pressed the mute button and gave my full attention to the visual cues.

Luckily, I had some background on the issue. In the hours leading up to the debate, I learned all about the effects of tie colors from Fox News. “Blue softens an otherwise harsh personality,” said one pundit. “I think women like blue.” Obama came on stage wearing a blue tie, surely a ploy for the female vote. Romney, on the other hand, wore red—the power color, a sign of aggression. (He wore blue ties in the primary debates, leaving himself open to charges of sartorial flip-flopping.)

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Both men wore American flag lapel pins, though Romney’s was larger, which may mean he loves America more. Or perhaps that his presidency would involve more daring accessories. The overall optics were a far cry from the Kennedy-Nixon match-up. Both men appeared tall and svelte, with a little dignified silver lingering around their ears. Pretty presidential stuff.

The New York Times had previewed the candidates’ gestures, such as President’s Obama’s signature “waving a ball”—apparently a ploy to get people to embrace a belief—and Mitt Romney’s empathetic “tilt and nod.” These gestures made appearances. More notable was the size of their gestures. Obama’s arms were generally constrained, like someone bet him he couldn’t keep his hands inside of his shoulders. “You must be this tall to ride,” his hands said. “I caught a small fish that was this big.” Romney’s movements were sweeping and energetic; his favorite seemed to be a sort of reverse raise-the-roof. At this point I have no idea what anyone said, but this leads me to believe Romney told Obama to pump the brakes on many important policy issues.

From the start, Romney tried to make eye contact with Obama. He wagged his fingers, shook his head and smirked at the end of his statements, much like he did when he was being the adult during the Republican primary debates. He counted things, forcefully. Perhaps it was “brass,” as Bill Clinton might say, derived from the deep redness of his tie. Regardless, Romney appeared to be spoiling for a fight. Obama, meanwhile, seemed determined not to give him one. He preferred to direct his speeches to host Jim Lehrer, while Romney more often appealed directly to the camera. The President seemed calm but exasperated, like a parent having an argument with their kid for the hundredth time, determined not to lose his temper. He closed his eyes slowly, blinked often and lowered his head. He wasn’t mad; just disappointed.

Perhaps the most important lesson for me was that watching a presidential debate without the sound is a true test in dedication. Just for the record, I did not fall asleep—though I may or may not have eaten enough sugar to put an entire kindergarten class into a coma. My prediction is that the American voters who haven’t yet decided might think Obama seemed weary, where Romney–who has been remarkably unexciting during the campaign–appeared vigorous. But the big question, of course, is what will happen in the following two debates: What color ties will the candidates wear then?

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