McCain, Obama’s nonverbals speak louder than their words

Bo Gemmell

Two Kent professors say debates offer a look at what’s unsaid

Two Kent State professors are looking beyond the words the presidential candidates said during their debates by researching their nonverbal speech patterns.

The research by Will Kalkhoff, associate professor of sociology, and professor emeritus Stanford Gregory focuses on paralanguage. Paralanguage refers to nonverbal elements of vocal communication, such as intensity, intonation, pitch and tempo.

“We really need to spend more time thinking about the ways in which these nonconscious processes unfold in our daily lives,” Kalkhoff said.

Their findings come from the relationship between the frequency and amplitude of Barack Obama and John McCain’s


Kalkhoff said variations that arise can show the dominance or deference of the senators.

“We interpret lack of variability in the lower frequencies as exertion of dominance,” he said.

Kalkhoff said he and Gregory need to analyze the third debate before coming to conclusions about McCain and Obama.

He said he thinks that “we need to look at debates in terms of beginning, middle and end” and how the candidates exert dominance or deference during each segment.

Kalkhoff said Obama’s lead in Gallup polls could be the result of the timing of his dominance in speech.

“When we look at beginning, middle and end, Obama is always more dominant at the end, and McCain is almost always more dominant in the beginning and middle,” he said.

He compared this to the rope-a-dope boxing strategy Muhammad Ali used. Ali would stand against the ropes and allow his opponents to hit him. When his opponents would tire and make mistakes, Ali would come out strong in the end.

“Obama might’ve come across as less dominant in the beginning, but what people are remembering is how he came off in the end,” Kalkhoff said. “You can’t come across as a weakling at the end of a debate.”

Kalkhoff and Gregory used video editing software to edit the debates into separate video files, which contained uninterrupted speech of each candidate. They used a Fast Fourier Transform analyzer to create nine voice samples from each candidate. They compiled the data into equal-length voice samples for each candidate to represent the beginning, middle and end of each candidate’s speaking time.

In this study, Kalkhoff and Gregory set the frequency from zero to 500 hertz, which represents the lower end of the candidates’ voices.

In a previous study, Gregory analyzed conversations via Fast Fourier Transform and discovered the participants adapt their voice frequencies to each other.

The current study is based on other communications studies. Kalkhoff said author George Lakoff argues in “The Political Mind” that explanations of politics require attention to mental processes that occur unconsciously.

Kalkhoff said Lakoff argued that certain anecdotes resonate with audience members and create particular sensations. Kalkhoff said these anecdotes, such as the “Joe the Plumber” references, generate feelings of success among the audience.

“It’s strategic storytelling,” he said.

In a 2002 study, Gregory and Timothy Gallagher, associate professor of sociology, used Fast Fourier Transform to analyze frequency ranges of candidates’ voices in televised debates.

These debates occurred prior to eight presidential elections between 1960 and 2000. Gregory and Gallagher averaged the dominance for each candidate.

Kalkhoff said the candidates who exerted dominance in those debates won the popular vote.

But Kalkhoff said he thinks the current studies have picked up on Obama’s tendency to communicate more dominantly at the end.

“The popular vote might be close in this election,” he said. “The moral of the story is get out and vote.”

Contact general assignment reporter Bo Gemmell at [email protected].