When voters observe a politician on television, they gather far more information beyond what the politician says. There are many telling visual messages sent by the politician’s facial expressions as well. That’s the main insight of Dan Hill, who has made a career developing and applying facial coding analysis – known as the Facial Action Coding System – to understand the emotions displayed by prominent entertainment, sports and political figures.
Hill, who has just published a book full of such analysis entitled “Two Cheers for Democracy: How Emotions Drive Leadership Style,” sat down for an interview to share his findings about President Donald Trump and the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
It may surprise many to learn that the predominant emotion in Trump’s face is that of sadness, ranging according to Hill from “disgruntled to disappointed.” It’s evident from his frequent upside-down smile and upward chin thrust. Many other presidents shared this facial trait, including Andrew Jackson (whom Trump admires), Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, John Quincy Adams and James Garfield. From that list, it’s clear that sadness is the trait of good and poor presidents.
Among this group, according to Hill, Trump ranks first in his frequent expressions of sadness. His second most frequently expressed facial emotion is disgust. Visually, Donald Trump no ray of sunshine. That won’t help him get re-elected, but despite this gloominess he prevailed in 2016.
Angry or Happy?
Hill’s analysis of the recent Democratic debates yields insights about Trump’s 2020 Democratic rivals. Hill reports that Sen. Elizabeth Warren did well in the most recent debates, demonstrating “conviction, courage and concentration.”
Warren also showcased anger 52 percent of the time in her appearances, virtually equal to Mr. Anger himself, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who demonstrated it 53 percent of the time in recent debates. Warren’s anger, however, appeared in more subtle fashion than that of Sanders, a feat not difficult to accomplish given Bernie’s frequent “hair on fire” demeanor.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, Hill argues, was a loser not because of obvious debate disasters, but because his happy, unfocused presentation did little to elevate him above the field. Sen. Kamala Harris also fared poorly, demonstrating a rare “Nixonian glower” in response to attacks by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who fared better. Sen. Kristen Gillibrand did not help herself with her expressions of contempt, a very unappealing visual characteristic.
A surprising winner in the debates was Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, whose expressions of good cheer and common sense remarks introduced him as a “happy warrior.” This set of characteristics, according to Hill, along with his moderate policies makes him perhaps the most formidable Democratic challenger to Trump. His late entry, meager funds and low poll standing, however, will likely end his candidacy well before the party’s national convention.
Hill measures candidates’ visual impact in terms of the intensity of their emoting during their presence in the debate spotlight. Three candidates’ traits had the strongest such impact upon the debate audience: Sanders’ anger, Bullock’s good cheer and Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s fear.
Klobuchar gave the strongest visual fear impression of any of the presidential candidates in both the first and second round of debates, belying her feisty remarks about taking on Trump. That does not help the campaign’s momentum.
Hill notes that the second round of Democratic debates evidenced a high degree of sadness, perhaps because of the critical and negative tone of the candidates’ remarks. Can a sad challenger beat Donald Trump, a sad incumbent?
So we may be in for visually, emotively sad presidential leadership regardless of the outcome of the 2020 election. Given the nastiness of contemporary national politics, that would be a plausible outcome indeed.
Steven Schier, Congdon Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.