• 03.07.16

Decoding The Body Language Of The Democratic Candidates

Between Sanders’s virtual screen sweep and Clinton’s cupped hand chop, the candidates showed how they really feel.

Decoding The Body Language Of The Democratic Candidates


When Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders faced off in Flint, Michigan, on Sunday night in their eighth debate of the Democratic presidential primary season, they agreed on plenty of issues and policies. But the tone of the debate was much more contentious than in earlier matchups–and their facial expressions and hand gestures said it all.

Since Clinton leads with 1,129 delegates to Sanders’s 498, he came out strongly by trying to remind viewers of his differences with her, and arguing that he’s better equipped to take on the eventual Republican nominee, especially if it’s Donald Trump. As Dan Hill, a specialist in facial coding noted, Sanders opened with what Hill calls his “virtual screen sweep”–his tendency to move his index finger, sometimes with thumb, from center to far right across his body. “It’s as if he wants to wipe clean the status quo,” says Hill. Sanders could be seen doing this move in his opening statement as well as during his answer to the early question on whether the government officials responsible for the Flint water scandal should be fired.

In contrast to Sanders wanting to solidify the image of himself as a political rebel, Clinton was on guard against his usual attacks. Hill noted that Clinton had “her very characteristic ‘battle-alert’ eyes wide open expression, a sign of anger, anxiety, and alert/negative surprise,” during the open discussion about taking criminal action against those responsible for the Flint water crisis.

Hill noted that Sanders’s facial expressions also revealed quite a bit of irritation. When Sanders uttered the line: “My one issue, rebuilding the middle class,” Hill notes that his lips pressed hard together, a sign of anger, that he says was reinforced by a “glint of anger with lower eyelids tight.” Hill says that Clinton’s body language in response, with her hands wide open and a big ironic smile, seemed to imply that Sanders was too narrow-minded and absolute.

In the second half of the debate, Clinton made a few decisive movements that Hill says could have been her attempt at appearing as a tough commander in chief, such as her slightly cupped hand chop when answering the questions on Detroit’s school system.

Continuing the theme of Sanders’s skepticism of Clinton’s commitment to liberal issues, Hill notes that his facial expressions revealed his feelings on Clinton’s transition plan for fossil fuel dependence. “Sanders’s lower lip thrust downward indicates disgust, and then his mouth drops open in surprise, as if to suggest he can’t believe and is disgusted by what she’s saying, or that he’s not convinced of her commitment to the issue,” Hill notes.


Finally, Hill notes the difference between Clinton’s rehearsed stage smile, something he calls an unnatural “Velveeta smile,” with what might be her more authentic smile. “A genuine smile, where the muscles around the eyes relax and there’s a twinkle in the eye, happens when Sanders says the GOP debate shows the need for investing in mental health.”

At least they’ve found another thing the two candidates can agree on.

About the author

Kathleen Davis is a Senior Editor at, managing the leadership and work-life section. Previously, she has worked as an editor at, and Popular Photography magazine.