On campus beat: Tracking the debate in a blink of an eye

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 10, 2012 - 8:39 PM

Eric Ostermeier doesn't just watch a presidential debate. He deconstructs it.

Ostermeier, a research associate at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, notes the candidates' lapel pins. He codes the colors of the candidates' ties. He breaks down, to the second, the time a candidate has to speak.

Then, he counts each and every time the candidates blink.

During last week's debate, Ostermeier found that President Obama blinked 1,000 times more than Mitt Romney, or 70.8 times a minute, compared with Romney's 52.8.

Obama's blinking, combined with long pauses and downcast gazes, "makes him look uncomfortable at best, unprepared at worst," Ostermeier said.

Ostermeier began tracking blinks during the Republican primaries, after noticing Rick Santorum's fluttering lids. During one debate, Santorum blinked the most of the six candidates on stage, at a rate of 61.4 times a minute. That compared with a low of 15.9, from Rick Perry.

Ostermeier records the debate, then counts, pausing or rewinding when needed. "It's not easy, just focusing on someone's eyes," he said. "You start thinking, 'Did I blink when he blinked?'"

His work parallels that done by a Boston College professor who has found that, since 1980, the presidential candidate who blinks less during debates wins the popular vote.

On his Smart Politics blog, Ostermeier noted that Obama reached his "peak blinking rate" during "one of the few aggressive segments" of the debate. His slowest came as he "addressed corporate taxes and tax breaks for companies like ExxonMobil."

He also found that while Obama had four minutes more speaking time, Romney fit in more words. He wonders: If Obama is more succinct next time, will his blinking slow?

Ostermeier will have his TV tuned to Thursday's vice presidential debate. He plans to analyze speaking times. But if he notices a flurry of blinking, he might count that, too.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 Twitter: @ByJenna

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