The Boston Globe reports that debate-weary voters are looking past the rehearsed sound bites to non-verbal cues in order to glean more meaningful insight into a candidateâ€™s psyche than their poll-tested words can convey:
The talking heads gab about front-runners and wannabes, attacks made and deflected, answers carefully parsed. But when Newbury Street hairstylist Mario Russo watches the Democratic presidential debates, he looks at something different: body language.
Senator Hillary Clinton carries herself with an uncanny stillness, Russo said: “She pretty much keeps the same stance all the way through. It’s almost as if she’s set in clay.” Senator Barack Obama, now rising in the polls, “is much more animated and open â€¦ He gestures with his whole upper body.” It’s a sign of personality and confidence, Russo said. “I think it influences people a great deal.”
In Kingston, N.H., retired engineer Bob Morse said he has watched Republican debates with a similar goal: finding subtle signals of character and intent. He thinks Rudy Giuliani seems to want the job of president, that Fred Thompson seems to want it handed to him, that Mitt Romney wants it so badly that it’s becoming a bit of a problem.
“I feel a little disconnected,” Morse said of Romney’s debate performances. “I feel like I’m getting a political, well-thought-out, politically correct answer or statement, rather than what’s on his mind.” â€¦
Part of what draws [Morse] him to Giuliani and John McCain, he said, is the way the two men have parried.
“I think it was the tough questions,” he said, “and even some of the sparring. I don’t expect them to agree, and I don’t mind a few not-too-unreasonable challenges. And you see how they react. They’re certainly going to get that in the Oval Office.”
If body language is an important factor in how well a candidateâ€™s message resonates with voters, then Mike Huckabee has inherited Ronald Reaganâ€™s mantle as â€œThe Great Communicatorâ€ â€“ anointed as such by Ed Rollins, who steered The Gipperâ€™s re-election bid to a landslide victory that turned all but one state red. The wily, seasoned GOP strategist, who has joined Huckabeeâ€™s campaign as national chairman all-but gushes:
“Governor Huckabee has probably inspired me as much as Ronald Reagan. He had an ability to connect with people and he was a great communicator. I’ve looked for a long time for another candidate to do that.
“People are always asking: ‘Who’s the next Ronald Reagan?’ Well, I was with the old Reagan. I can promise you that this man comes as close as I’ve ever seen.”
Why does Rollins find Huckabee â€œinspirational?â€ The answer may lie in this informal study of the recent Republican debate sponsored by Univision by experts in Laban Movement Analysis (â€œa technique for describing body movements and hypothesizing about the signals they sendâ€) on how the candidates performed based on physicality. Their verdict? Huckabee was the clear winner:
“He listens,” says Karen Studd. “He’s willing to hear other perspectives.”
“It’s about innovative ideas,” says Karen Bradley.
Not that these women â€¦ necessarily support the ideas of the conservative former Arkansas governor. They’ve barely been listening to them, in fact. But as professors of dance, they’ve got their own theory about Huckabee’s ascent in the polls: It’s something in the way he moves.
A man of confident gestures and lively demeanor, Huckabee just might be this cycle’s Great Communicator in the quadrennial contest that Bradley claims always comes down to the candidate with the greatest “shaping” ability — the subtle body language that conveys warmth, strength, energy, whatever it is that makes people think they like and trust you. â€¦
It’s not any one trick or gimmick; he’s simply the most “integrative” guy in the race, the professors say. Talking about the need for preventive health care, he moves his hand forward and brings his body’s full weight along, his eyebrows lifting in perfect synchronicity. The message? “That all of him is invested,” says Studd.
New York Times columnist Frank Rich also believes Republicans will find Huckabee inspirational, and likens him to Barack Obama (he means it as a compliment):
The prevailing Huckabee narrative maintains that heâ€™s benefiting strictly from the loyalty of the religious right. Evangelical Christians are belatedly rallying around one of their own, a Baptist preacher, rather than settling for a Mormon who until recently supported abortion rights or a thrice-married New Yorker who still does. But that doesnâ€™t explain Mr. Huckabeeâ€™s abrupt ascent to first place in some polling nationwide, where Christian conservatives account for a far smaller slice of the Republican pie than in Iowa. â€¦
Like Senator Obama, Mr. Huckabee is the youngest in his partyâ€™s field. (At 52, heâ€™s also younger than every Democratic contender except Mr. Obama, who is 46.) Both men have a history of speaking across party and racial lines. Both men possess that rarest of commodities in American public life: wit. Most important, both men aspire (not always successfully) to avoid the hyper-partisanship of the Clinton-Bush era.
Though their views on issues are often antithetical, Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Obama may be united in catching the wave of an emerging zeitgeist that is larger than either partyâ€™s ideology. An exhausted and disillusioned public may be ready for a replay of the New Frontier pitch of 1960. â€¦
In 1960, the experience card was played by all comers against the young upstart senator from Massachusetts. In Iowa, L.B.J. went so far as to tell voters that they should vote for â€œa man with a little gray in his hair.â€ But experience, Kennedy would memorably counter, â€œis like taillights on a boat which illuminate where we have been when we should be focusing on where we should be going.â€
Admittedly Huckabee has had a rough week, attacked from the left and right â€“ unfairly, some say – for (among other things) his views on gays and those infected with AIDS should be isolated; for dancing around the issue of whether Mormons are fellow Christians – and for slyly suggesting that Mormons believe Jesus and Satan were brothers (he apologized to Romney); for preferring to believe that all of us â€œare the unique creations of a God who knows us and loves us and who created us for his own purpose”; for telling a gathering of Southern Baptist pastors in June 1998 that “I hope we â€¦ take this nation back for Christ”; for ethical issues dating back to his days as AR governor; and for accepting the endorsement of Minuteman Civil Defense League founder Jim Gilchrist. Steven Stark of the Boston Phoenix even wondered whether Huckabee is â€œthe new Jimmy Carterâ€ (he did not mean it as a compliment).
In a recent column Jim Pinkerton, Newsday columnist and Fox News pundit, debunks the idea that Huckabee will be â€œan easy killâ€:
Democrats might have miscalculated the Republican race – certainly plenty of Republicans have done so – and now they are spinning, while reassessing.
It’s happened before. Long ago, I worked in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign. And I well remember Democratic politicos insisting that Reagan was the weakest Republican opponent that Jimmy Carter could face as he sought re-election that year. Was that “psychological warfare” by the Democrats? Or did they really think that the 69-year-old “cowboy” ex-actor – not yet known as “The Great Communicator” – would be the easiest Republican to beat? Probably a little of both.
Pinkerton concedes that the nomination remains a big hurdle for Huckabee, but if he wins it, â€œhe will be formidable in a general election, just like that other Razorback.â€
Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog.