If Marco Rubio is the best debater, why does he look so nervous?

January 28, 2016
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Senator Marco Rubio RUETERS/Files

Donald Trump jousts with all the other candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, but his critiques of Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have taken an odd tack. The New York developer repeatedly talks about the way Rubio perspires during debates, even to the point of sending him a “care package” of 24 bottles of water.

The GOP establishment is reportedly considering Rubio as the best potential non-Trump candidate, yet the first-term senator still appears to be the most anxious in the field, judging by his facial expressions.

If Rubio has a signature expression, it’s the lip stretcher – an accepted sign of fear. You could see it at the conclusion of perhaps half his answers, during the previous debates: Rubio’s lips pull back laterally, widening his mouth and making his lips flatten and stretch, especially on the right side of his mouth.

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio listens to a question from the audience during a town hall meeting at the Fisher Community Center in Marshalltown, Iowa, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Scott Morgan - RTX21AQG

Senator Marco Rubio listens to a question from the audience during a town hall meeting at the Fisher Community Center in Marshalltown, Iowa, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Scott Morgan

Rubio’s lip stretcher movement is always quick — essentially a micro-expression of anxiety. It is so brief it could escape notice, if not for two factors. One, it happens so often. Two, it is often accompanied by what is called a “lip suck,” when the lips pull back into the mouth — notably the lower lip in Rubio’s case. He pulls the outer portion of his lips inside the mouth, covering the teeth, while the skin below his lower lip stretches, flattening the chin boss, which is the area just above the jaw line.

Now, a lip suck, a sort of nervous tick, doesn’t officially qualify as a signal of anxiety, according to the rules of facial coding. But the movement can be viewed as akin to biting your fingernails. Combined with the lip stretcher, it helps create the impression that Rubio is, despite his smiles, not fully at ease in a debate.

Over the last two Republican debates, Rubio often seemed out of his comfort zone during exchanges with rivals. In the mid-December debate, Rubio mixed it up with his fellow first-term Senators Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for extended periods. Talking about Libya, Rubio followed four lip stretchers with a lip suck and a trembling lower lip. In the most recent debate, during a dust-up with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the lip-pull and lip-suck combination was notable.

Nor is that the only evidence of Rubio’s “stage fright.” His right eyebrow sometimes lifts at the outward corner, which can signal anxiety as well as surprise.

Those two emotions are linked, because surprises can change the status quo – which might be viewed by some as a threat. When talking about threats to U.S. national security, for example, Rubio frequently raises his eyebrows – perhaps signaling fear of what else could befall America, such as the massacre in San Bernardino, California.

Raised eyebrows can, however, also be a deliberate, if dramatic, facial expression to emphasize a specific comment. Are Rubio’s many instances of raised eyebrows a rhetorical gesture or a heart-felt expression? That’s one question the candidate’s repeated signs of anxiety raise.

A second question is whether Rubio’s flashes of anxiety support his expressed concerns about the country’s fate? Or do they relate to concerns about his own fate as a candidate? Is Rubio, an ambitious young politician, worried about how he’s being perceived by voters? Could Rubio be betraying the vulnerability of his presidential hopes, all wrapped up in a facial gesture that indicates just how eager he is to please, be accepted and prevail?

Rubio’s fretting suggests a candidate worried that any given reply may inadvertently derail his dream of reaching the White House. In the December debate, after Carly Fiorina dismissed Rubio as a mere first-term senator without executive experience, Rubio reacted with both a lip-stretcher sign of anxiety and a sad wince. In contrast, after Cruz attacked Rubio during the latest debate for his advocacy of expanding the use of green cards, the Florida senator’s expressions varied from eyes-down sadness to pursed lips of anger to sarcastic smiles during his rebuttal.

Because Rubio doesn’t only project anxiety. He regularly punctuates his comments with smiles. Never bigger than after his recital of Cruz’s alleged inconsistencies in the recent debate. In fact, Rubio has showed signs of mastering some of Bill Clinton’s most effective mannerisms. He mixes hopeful, happy smiles with firm words, as well as hints of scowling, purposeful anger.

The more optimistic candidates generally prevail in American politics. Consider Ronald Reagan. Or, another happy warrior, Franklin D. Roosevelt. At every Republican debate, Rubio has displayed the biggest smile in the candidates’ photo op. He’s also the most given to displaying skeptical smiles during answers. He noted, for example, that Islamic State doesn’t get its guns thanks to a gun-show registration loophole.

Nonetheless, compared to the other two first-term senators running for the Republican nomination — Cruz and Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — Rubio stands apart in being so often given to fear. While Paul smirks and Cruz resolutely smolders, Rubio frets.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It can be a sign of just how important winning is to Rubio. He asks Americans for their votes more than the other candidate, for example. The guy wants to win — and he wants to win now rather than wait his turn for another election down the road.

7 comments

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Go Marco

Posted by Moco | Report as abusive

Marco (Thirsty Boy) Rubio. I should be President because I am Hispanic and I have a Hispanic name. My qualifications include being Hispanic and you know I like to drink a lot of water.

Posted by Informative | Report as abusive

What are you watching?? :) He doesn’t seem nervous at all. Calm, cool,, collected, and well-spoken.

Posted by ldiaz | Report as abusive

Marco Rubio will be the nominee, and then the president. Just wait and see.

Posted by joc123 | Report as abusive

Latin Americans Accept Insults From Liberal Democrats! Jan 27, 2016 Townhall: Chris Matthews Says ‘Nobody Cares’ About Watching a Debate Between ‘The Two Cuban Guys.’ The way that Liberal Democrats really feel about Latin Americans was revealed in the proclamation by Liberal Democrat Mouthpiece MSNBC racist henchman Chris Matthews. Obviously, the rhetoric by Liberal Democrats is to use Latin Americans!

Posted by moralsmore | Report as abusive

Latin Americans Accept Insults From Liberal Democrats! Jan 27, 2016 Townhall: Chris Matthews Says ‘Nobody Cares’ About Watching a Debate Between ‘The Two Cuban Guys.’ The way that Liberal Democrats really feel about Latin Americans was revealed in the proclamation by Liberal Democrat Mouthpiece MSNBC racist henchman Chris Matthews. Obviously, the rhetoric by Liberal Democrats is to use Latin Americans!

Posted by moralsmore | Report as abusive

His facial expressions got WORSE. It shows to me that he is either TOTALLY FAKE or the OPPOSITE. Either way,TOO young and inexperienced for this job. As For Mr Cruz. He speaks from his NOSE. Like if his nostrils are plugged up.This could be very annoying to listen after awhile.

Posted by USF | Report as abusive