• 02.26.16

Decoding The Facial Expressions Of The GOP Candidates

Trump’s “crooked contemptuous” smile, Rubio’s sheepish grin, and Cruz’s upper lip of disgust dominated the debate.

Decoding The Facial Expressions Of The GOP Candidates


For tonight’s Republican primary debate, you could have left the TV on mute and still known who was winning or losing. Though you’d obviously have missed out on the substance of the tempestuous disagreements, you would have gained amazing insights into the personalities of the candidates.

Donald Trump was angry and confident, Ted Cruz was a little fearful, and Marco Rubio seemed nervous but happy. That’s the thumbnail analysis by Dan Hill, a specialist in facial coding. According to Hill, such coding “enables us to scientifically yet non-invasively capture, quantify, and analyze the emotions shown by consumers, executives, politicians, professional athletes, witnesses, and others.”

Like a Shakespearean drama, the main characters took the stage with facial expressions that anticipated the action to come. From the beginning, Trump’s eyes were narrowed, angrily realizing “that he will be under attack all night,” noted Hill. He explained that anger has to do with wanting “to control your destiny.” His chin thrust upward, Cruz was combative, and exhibited disgust and fear “under Trump attack for having no friends, knowing the attacks are coming.” And Rubio gave a “hard stare” at Cruz but “also flinching fear with mouth wide and the lip suck.”

During the first explosive moment of the debate, Rubio went on the attack against Trump, reciting an opposition research binder’s worth of negative stories about Trump’s hiring of illegal Polish workers on one of his hotel projects and complaints about the educational standards at his eponymous university.

Like a lion and a hyena battling on the African savannah, the candidates’ facial expressions said everything. “Rubio flashes his big smile (skepticism) at Trump, and Trump is getting angry (eyebrows down, mouth curled in disgust),” observed Hill. “Both talking over each other. Mouth pulls wide by Rubio, claiming “no change.” Lip suck also reveals his fear and the rapid talking is interrupted by both the mouth pulled wide in fear and the lip suck.”

Throughout the debate and their frequent feuds, both candidates showed characteristic gestures, with Trump wagging his finger and “scolding” and Rubio flashing a “sheepish big smile” that shows his skepticism and a need to “soften hard rhetoric” (a move mastered by Bill Clinton 20 years ago).


When Trump and Cruz faced off over religious liberty and Planned Parenthood, they exhibited their trademark traits: Trump aggressively finger-pointing and Cruz flaring his upper lip in disgust, noted Hill. But attacking Trump is hard for Cruz as “Trump doesn’t show fear or almost never,” writes Hill.

Later, when Cruz and Rubio were questioned about their appeal to Hispanic voters, Hill noted: “Such a wounded smile from Cruz, on having won as a Hispanic; eyebrows raise in middle and wince always in cheeks near nose, a sad look to him often.” And when he talks about Obamacare, he is the angriest candidate, “his lips narrow and tighten and his eyes get a hard glint, with tightened lower lids,” says Hill.

According to Hill, the happiest candidate wins over 70% of debates. That puts Rubio (“far ahead on smiles”), Carson (“soft nice smile”), and Trump (“smirks mostly,” “crooked ironic contemptuous smile at an angle is his most common smile”) at the top of the pack.

Hill noted that Kasich seemed distressed, with a “barbed wire twitch.” His mouth “pulls down and out (disgust/sadness) and mouth tightens in anger often in answering. Not a relaxed guy!” He shares some of that trait with Trump, who also pouts, thrusts his chin upwards, and has an upside-down smile, according to Hill.

Kasich’s grimace limits his ability to position himself as the candidate of hope, explains Hill. When he holds his hands together in a “prayer-like look” but with fists, he’s also combative.

Fitting of his outsider status, Carson stands apart. “The oddest thing is when his eyes are closed, often a sign of sadness,” observes Hill. “The biggest introvert on the stage–the direct opposite of Trump.”


The candidates also expressed interesting reactions to certain debate topics. Mention of the IRS caused Cruz to raise his big upper lip in disgust, North Korean nuclear capabilities prompted Carson to do the same, though he also flared his lips outward in a sign of fear. And when Cruz claimed that Rubio and Trump had supported Secretary of State John Kerry, they reacted in opposite ways: “Rubio’s mouth wide briefly in fear, Trump smirks,” observed Hill.

In the end, Hill called it for Trump since he “held his own” though Rubio “was certainly more forceful” and “had his best debate in that he was willing to needle Trump repeatedly and keep on talking rather than submit to Trump’s volume.” Trump still comes across as the “alpha male,” says Hill. “Cruz is angry yet sad, Carson is kindly sad, and Kasich offered barbed-wire hope (smiles, yet lots of bitter down-cornered mouth looks).”

Related: A Supercut of Donald Trump’s Most Controversial Moments