According to the analysis of Joseph Tecce, a Boston College psychophysiologist who has spent decades studying the body language of presidential hopefuls, the candidate who blinks more during debates has lost every election but one since 1980. The lone exception was in 2000, when a faster-blinking George W. Bush bested Al Gore in the electoral college … but lost the popular vote.
During the 2008 general election, Tecce’s theory has borne out nicely: Obama, who blinked 62 times per minute, trounced McCain who clocked in at 104 times per minute.
“If you drive a car 100 miles an hour, you will lose your driving license, and if you blink 100 times a minute, you will lose an election,” Tecce opined in a recent presentation.
Tecce bases his theory on the well-established relationship between our eye movements and our emotional state. Typically, stress and other unpleasant feelings cause people to blink more often. As social creatures, we also recognize faster blinking as a sign of distress in others.
Explaining the apparent link with election results is a bit trickier though. Does the audience find the faster-blinking candidate unnerving and form a negative impression? Or does the candidate who is trailing in the polls tend to be under greater stress — and therefore likely to blink more often? Tecce says that both factors likely come into play.
This year, Romney seems to be an early favorite to blink less, based on Tecce’s analysis of the candidates’ most-recent convention speeches. Romney blinked 33 times a minute during his acceptance address, while Obama did 41 times a minute.
Still, Tecce said, he expects the blinking contest will be tight.
“It appears from previous performances that they are both relatively close in blink rate and both in the normal range,” Tecce told The Daily. “Consequently, we will have to watch carefully in the coming debates to see if this pattern holds or whether there will be an observable difference between these two candidates. If their rates hold now, as it has in the past, there may not be enough of a difference for voters to be affected.”
One obvious shortcoming of blink theory, though, is that it seems not to hold during the primaries.
Tecce found that Mitt Romney blinked at a rate of 40 times a minute during the 2008 primary debates — the lowest of anyone in the GOP field that year. Yet it was John McCain, who blinked 100 times per minute, that ultimately took the nomination. President Obama blinked 45 times a minute during the Democratic primaries four years ago — slightly more than Hillary Clinton at 40 times per minute.
And this year may have produced the outlier of them all: Texas Gov. Rick Perry blinked at a near-reptilian rate of 16 times per minute during a primary debate in January, even as his candidacy was imploding.
Eric Ostermeier, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, did the counting. “Perry has also been described as very stiff and I guess that also applied to his eye lids,” said Ostermeier. Even during his epic “oops” moment at a debate two months prior — he famously struggled to remember the third government agency he planned to shut down — Perry didn’t start blinking any faster.
Tecce said he has heard anecdotally over the years of campaigns trying to coach their candidates on how to blink less while on the stage, but doesn’t know if it has had any effect.
Perry’s former campaign manager, Rob Johnson, told The Daily that Perry’s restrained eyelid movement wasn’t coached.
“There are a lot of nonverbal cues that you practice along with practicing policy and delivery, but blinking is not in that category,” he said.
“And quite frankly it seems a little absurd that someone would do a study on it.”