Body language expert: Hillary Clinton owned the debate from the moment she walked on stage

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Hillary Clinton enters the Democratic presidential debate on Oct. 13, 2015 at Wynn LAs Vegas.
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Joe Raedle/Getty

Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate was Hillary Clinton’s to win, and that’s exactly what she did, according to the majority of pundits and critics in the media.

Politics aside, Clinton clearly looked the most presidential, said body language expert Dr. Nick Morgan, a communications coach to Fortune 50 companies and the bestselling author of “Power Cues.”

“I would say Hillary owned that debate from the moment she walked out,” Morgan told Business Insider. “Of the five candidates, she was the one who walked out with confidence. Her body language was saying, ‘I own this stage. I’ve got this nailed. Don’t worry, I’m in charge.’ And in fact, she was.”


She got passionate.

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Clinton shined when she was genuinely passionate about a topic, such as a defense of Planned Parenthood.
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Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

“Now, Bernie Sanders gave her a good run for her money,” Morgan said. “She’s more buttoned-down than he is and because a TV debate like that craves emotion, Bernie’s shouting and his hand waving are certainly distracting, but she stayed calm, she stayed centered. And so, hands down, she was the most powerful presence on that stage.”

The most consistent criticism of Clinton’s presence is her reservation, which causes some of her supposedly genuine moments to appear artificial and staged. Morgan said he saw some progress on this front in the debate.

A moment that stood out to him was when Clinton defended Planned Parenthood against attacks from conservatives. Morgan said that “she was genuinely passionate at that moment and it came across. It was riveting as a result, because she doesn’t do it very often.”


She was warm.

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Clinton laughs and thanks Bernie Sanders for saying that he and the American people are tired of hearing about the email controversy.
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REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Clinton also got to show another side to her personality.

A highlight of the debate was when Sanders proclaimed, “Enough of the emails!” in reference to this year’s scandal surrounding the private server Clinton used as Secretary of State. Morgan said that Clinton had the perfect response, laughing genuinely and then shaking his hand in gratitude.

“It was a win-win for the both of them,” Morgan said. “He got his funny line in and … that was a nice moment for her, a very human, warm, connected kind of moment.”


But she blew a chance to put the controversy behind her.

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A poorly timed smile could remind some viewers of the longstanding suspicion that Clinton has a tendency to be disingenuous.
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Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Morgan said that Clinton faltered, however, when she tried to allude to this amusing moment later, when Lincoln Chafee brought the email issue back up and CNN moderator Anderson Cooper asked Clinton if she wanted to respond. She simply replied, “No,” which got a big reaction, and smiled wide as she said it.

Despite the cheering of those already in her camp, Morgan said the moment served as a reminder that the email controversy dragged on so long because she initially refused to respond seriously to allegations of wrongdoing, and made her seem disingenuous.

“Had she said ‘no’ with a serious expression on her face, she probably could have put that to bed then and there,” Morgan said.


She outperformed the other candidates.

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Joe Raedle/Getty

As for the body language of the other candidates, Morgan said:

Lincoln Chaffee: “I mean, I think if he isn’t finished as a result of that evening then it won’t be long. But he certainly didn’t look presidential.”

Jim Webb: “We all expect our debaters to be a little stiff and nervous at first, perhaps, but expect them to be comfortable by the end. But he never really eased into it, except to complain that he wasn’t getting enough air time. So he didn’t do himself any favors.”

Martin O’Malley: He has great stage presence, but didn’t have to content to back it up, Morgan explained. “He’s the tallest person on the stage, he’s very good-looking, he’s got good posture, and so just showing up and being seen on the same stage with Hillary and with Sanders is a win for him … It took him a long time to get over the nervousness, so he didn’t put in a strong performance.”

Bernie Sanders: “I think the only problem with Bernie is he’s a ranter, and do we really want a ranter to be our president? It’s like Donald Trump. We respond to the emotion and we respond to the apparent authenticity, but in the long run will people want that?”


Her biggest Republican challenger may be Trump.

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Donald Trump speaks during the second Republican presidential debate.
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REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

And as for competition in the GOP, Morgan said Clinton’s performance stacks up well.

As one of two female candidates in the race, Morgan said Clinton has the advantage because she’s never had to prove that she can fit the archetype of “strong woman” – no one’s questioned her strength.

Morgan said he’d be interested in seeing Clinton go up against Donald Trump, because “anytime you put Trump in a room with people, he’s going to dominate.” Trump knows how to keep the cameras and audience focused on him even when he’s not speaking, through animated expressions. Morgan said that if he were coaching Clinton to debate Trump, he’d say to treat him “like an unruly child,” and to express moments of exasperation at some of his more bombastic statements.


She has a strong start.

Going forward in the race, Morgan said, “Hillary is certainly going to present a strong, authoritative, fully-capable-of-being-an-executive persona. She’s going to come out with that kind of reserved strength.”

But in this campaign cycle, where Americans seem “to be craving authentic outsiders,” Clinton is going “to have to dial up her game a little bit and continue to find places where she can show some emotion in a way that is consistent,” Morgan said. “And that’s tough, because that’s not been her game. Her game has been to be reserved and protect herself and play it close.”