Posts Tagged 'Obama'

Basic ideas

Because a lot of people are coming here because of the New Scientist article, and perhaps don’t want to have to read through the back issues, I thought it would be worthwhile to review the basics.

Sometimes when people talk about spin they mean attempts to reinterpret generally-agreed facts in a way that makes one or other candidate or party look better. Sometimes this involves mistating facts, but this is usually a risky thing for a politician to do.

When I talk about spin what I mean is the way in which politicians represent themselves as different (nicer) than they are. In a perfect world, politicians might get elected based entirely on their competence, but in our world people seem to prefer to vote for someone that they like, or who seems to be someone like them. Politicians, therefore, have a lot of motivation to assume a persona or facade in which they seem more likeable and attractive than their base personality.

This presentation of an ‘enhanced’ persona has to be subconscious to really work. Only a few of us can do this consciously (people called actors, often paid well if they can do it well). So when it is happening, it can be detected by changes in subconscious behavior, in this case changes in language. Because it is largely subconscious, it provides a window into individuals’ situational view which can often be illuminating, and is often interesting as well.

For a politican, then, spin is a good thing, and a good politician will tend to be good at it. We blame politicians for being hypocritical, but they do it because it works with voters.

The limiting factors, interrelated, are how well a politician can use high spin, and the content of what s/he wants to talk about. A speech about, say, putting elephants on Mars is easy to make high spin because nothing in the speech depends on the person giving it — it’s like an argument at a debating society; there’s nothing personal invested in it. A speech that depends on what a politician has done in the past, or what s/he plans to do because of some individual skill or goal is harder to give with high spin exactly because it relates to the speaker in a tighter way. A politician who can give such a speech in a high-spin way has a huge advantage. A speech that is intended primarily for those who already support a candidate and tries to relate to them in a personal way is even more difficult to give in a high-spin way (part of Bill Clinton’s success might have been because he seems to be able to do this).

Almost all of the speeches in the U.S. election campaign can be understood from this perspective. The convention speeches are especially useful because, as a set, they all try to do more or less the same thing. But the level of spin achieved by the different speakers differs substantially.

The brief history of the campaign is this: Obama uses moderately high levels of spin throughout, varying because of the kind of speeches he gives. McCain did inded start out with straight talk, but his levels of spin quickly matched Obama once it was clear that Obama was the Democratic nominee. Clinton’s level of spin started fairly low, because she loves to get into policy intricacies. When it became clear that Obama was likely to win the nomination, she moved to a much more personal-appeal strategy with even lower levels of spin. This worked well for her with her base, but not so much outside of it, which is what you would expect for this kind of strategy.

At their conventions, Obama gave a fairly typical speech. McCain tried a risky strategy in which he used very (!!) low levels of spin. It’s not clear whether it worked for him, because both speeches were so overshadowed by the choice of Palin as VP nominee.

Election spin results covered by New Scientist

There’s an article on, among other things, my work on spin the US election campaign in this week’s issue of New Scientist. You can find it online here. There are also some interesting results from the people who look at facial expressions (pioneered by Ekman) and so voice analysis.

What’s in a name?

In the first phase of the U.S. election campaign, John McCain was “McCain”, Barack Obama was “Obama”, and Hillary Clinton was “Hillary”. It wasn’t clear that this meant anything, since “Clinton” was ambiguous (Bill or Hillary) and it was tedious to have to say “Hillary Clinton” or “Senator Clinton”.

However, now John McCain is still “McCain”, Barack Obama is still “Obama”, but Sarah Palin is “Sarah” in the media.

I’m not trying to make any claim of sexism here. I’ve noticed over many years that, given a free choice, women tend to choose userids based on their first name, while men choose userids based on their surname. But it’s an interesting example of gender differences.

Men who use a single name tend to do so because they’re very powerful or well-known: Donald, Bill (ambiguous), Napoleon. It’s not so clear that this applies to women.
Finally, a slightly relevant joke. A British general arrives at his car to find that he’s been assigned a new ATS (female) driver.

“What’s your name?”

“Mary, Sir”

“I can’t call you Mary. What’s your surname?”

“Darling, Sir”

“Drive on, Mary”

Comparing the Democratic and Republican convention spin

Just to round out the picture, here’s data comparing the levels of spin across the speeches from both conventions.

Spin levels in both conventions

Spin levels in both conventions

As usual, high spin is indicated by the red end of the line. Here are the spin scores for all of the speeches analyzed (positive numbers are high spin):

1. Bush 0.40
2. Thompson 1.71
3. Lieberman -0.73
4. Romney 4.36
5. Huckabee -1.8
6. Giuliani 2.97
7. Palin -0.62
8. McCain -7.38
9. M. Obama -1.24
10. Hillary Clinton 2.43
11. Bill Clinton 0.99
12. Biden -1.35
13. Obama 0.31

The relative positions don’t change much when compared to the other party. Within each party, there’s the same division into high- and low-spin speakers. McCain’s overall spin is still so low that it makes all of the other politicians look as if they are clustered quite close together, but there are actually quite large differences between them.

Note the cluster of Bush, Palin, Bill Clinton, and Biden who have very similar speech patterns. Perhaps this is the sign of a successful politician?

Update on spin in presidential elections

I was away for three weeks, and it’s taken me three weeks to catch up and be able to post again (although sporadically for a while).

I’ve worked through the candidate speeches since the beginning of the year. There’s  a lot to look at: what was the effect of Clinto dropping out of the race, and the transition to general-election mode?

Here’s the short version: Obama continues to use high levels of spin, after a brief period (between the time he had the primary won and the Pastor Wright affair) when his levels of spin were reduced. McCain has increased his level of spin so that it’s little different from that of Obama — his straight talk levels dropped off a cliff once Obama became the presumptive nominee.

Here’s the overall plot of spin:

Spin levels to July 16th

Spin levels to July 16th

The red dots are McCain speeches; the blue dots, Clinton speeches; and the blue stars, Obama speeches. The speeches for each candidate are numbered in time order: 1-32 Clinton, 33-77 McCain, 78-128 Obama. Note that Clinton now looks like the straight-talking candidate, because the calculation of spin is done relative to all of the speeches over the past 7 months.

Here are the spin scores for each candidate individually, in time order:

Clinton Jan 2008 to her withdrawal

Clinton Jan 2008 to her withdrawal

McCain Jan 2008 to July 16

McCain Jan 2008 to July 16

Obama Jan 2008 to July 16th

Obama Jan 2008 to July 16th

The change in McCain’s levels of straight talking are by far the most noticeable. Obama has had a few flashes of straight talk, but he seems most comfortable using moderate levels of spin.

Of course, spin works and that is why both candidates are using it. But neither can really claim that their campaign is not politics as usual.

Spin in the US Presidential Primaries — Summary

As we enter what looks like it might be the end phase of the primary season, I thought I would summarize what I’ve written about spin during the process.

  1. What is spin? People often talk about spin as messing with the content of a communication: leaving bits out, or changing the emphasis. What I’m talking about here is a mental (unconscious) process where a person presents themselves or their content in a way that does not reflect what they know to be true about it. Politicians (and the rest of us) do this, to some extent, all of the time — trying to make a good impression. For a politician, outright lying is a poor idea (recall Clinton under sniper fire) but there is a lot of pressure to be “all things to all men”. Because the communication is not the speaker’s natural persona, this kind of spin produces a detectable signature in the communication.
  2. What is the model of spin (deception)? This work is based on Pennebaker’s empirically-derived model of word-usage changes when people are being deceptive. This model is characterized by (a) reduced rates of first-person singular pronouns; (b) reduced rates of exclusive words, words that mark the beginning of a phrase or clause that qualifies or refines what has gone before; (c) increased rates of negative-emotion words; and (d) increased rates of action verbs. These changes are unconsciously produced, so cannot be directly altered by a speaker, even one who knows the model. Although the model was developed for plain deception (outright lying) it seems to detect deception across the full range from lying, through spin, to negotiating and dating.
  3. Why does there have to be a context? Because the model relies on increases and decreases in word-usage rates, there must be some kind of context of similar communications or documents to be able to tell whether a given frequency represents an increase or a decrease. Therefore, absolute spin scores cannot be determined — instead we can only rank a set of communications from most to least spinful. Even within the context of the presidential primaries, underlying language use has changed, most obviously from a ”getting to know me” phase to a “getting to know my policies” phase.
  4. The early primaries. From the beginning of 2008 until the 3rd week of February, all three candidates were introducing themselves. In the speeches given during this period, McCain has the least spin, followed by Clinton, followed by Obama, with noticeably higher levels of spin. McCain generally used (and uses) high rates of first-person singular pronouns, justifying his ‘straight talk” claim; Clinton generally used high rates of exclusive words, adding refinement and qualification to many of her statements. Obama’s speeches were lacking in both: he used “we” at extremely high rates (and “I” hardly at all), and his statements were simple and declarative. This makes for speeches that are light on content but, when well delivered, emotionally uplifting. (Reading Obama’s speeches rather than hearing makes one wonder what all the fuss is about — the speeches themselves are rather dry, and the delivery is everything.)
  5. Obama decides he’s won. Over the weekend of February 24th, Obama’s language patterns changed dramatically, becoming very similar to Clinton’s. I conclude that this weekend his campaign did the calculations and decided that Clinton could not win the nomination (which seemed, and seems, mathematically true). He cannot have consciously altered his speech patterns, so this must the result of reframing what’s going on to himself — presumably stepping out from behind the persona he had been using before that and presenting something closer to his real self.
  6. The past month. In the past month, both Obama and Clinton show higher levels of spin whenever the pressure on them has increased, and they have become defensive. For example, Obama’s levels of spin jumped back to January levels when the Wright controversy became public. In such situations, Obama’s level of spin is characteristically higher than Clinton’s.
  7. Responses versus statements. It is difficult to analyze and compare the debate statements of the candidates with their speeches. The question and answer form naturally changes the rates of word usage: for example, if the question is “Would you…” it’s much more likely that the answer will begin “I will…”. And, to make matters worse, debates are not really question and answer since candidates have prepared statements for likely questions and they will use them regardless of the form (and sometimes the content) of the question. It is not yet clear how applicable the deception model is in question and answer situations, so I have not analyzed the debates, except for the most-recent — where Obama still shows up having higher spin than Clinton.
  8. Does spin work? Spin is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it does work in the sense that it can make a speaker appealing to people who would otherwise not be attracted to him/her — which is why,  of course, politicians use it. On the other hand, if a candidate steps out of character, even briefly, people may realize that it is a facade and react in a strong negative way. And, to make it harder, the facade and the language usage are largely subconscious, so a candidate may misstep without realizing it.
  9. “I” versus “we”. There’s a lot of (positive) discussion of Obama’s high rates of use of “we”. This pronoun is irrelevant to deception — people who are being honest or deceptive may use “we” at either high or low rates. However, the difference between using these two pronouns is partially understood. People who are being open and not status conscious typically use “I” a lot, while those who are being closed and status conscious typically use “we” a lot. In particular, “we’ is often code for “you” — commanding without creating the impression of command. In other words, “we” is a weasel word.
  10. Growing into a persona. It’s possible that Clinton and McCain have been in politics so long that a persona that they originally assumed has now become so much a part of them that it has become their real personality; and that is why their levels of spin are low. By this explanation, the reason that Obama has such high levels of spin is that he’s a relative newcomer to the US national arena, and so he still “puts on” a persona. This doesn’t seem all that convincing — first, he has a long history in public life, although on a smaller stage; second, he seems to be able to step out from behind the persona when things are going well.

The analysis on which this summary is based (and the figures that go with it) can be found in earlier postings.

Clinton and Obama spin including Penn debate

Here are the results of the analysis of spin for Clinton and Obama, using speeches from 2008, and the Penn debate last night. 19 is Clinton, and 39 is Obama.
Obama and Clinton including Penn debate

Clinton: blue dots; Obama: blue stars.

As I’ve noted before, Clinton in general uses less spin than Obama, except when she’s under pressure. It’s also clear from this figure that there is a significant difference between the two orthogonal to the line that indicates level of spin. This is almost entirely due to Clinton’s liking for action verbs, to which Obama is relatively allergic.

It’s not quite fair to compare debate content to prepared speeches, because a debate requires some level of responsiveness to questions (which changes the model of deception). However, it was clear that most of the answers last night were heavily prepped, so perhaps it’s not too different.

The striking thing is that both performances represent all-time lows in spin for both candidates. This is somewhat surprising since Clinton is presumptively in the last few days of her candidacy. Both candidates seem to have decided that they can only be who they are — which has to be a good thing.

Mind you, Obama is still in love with the pronoun “we”. He almost said “when we become president” last night!

US presidential election spin — recent speeches

As promised, I’ve updated the plot of candidate spin to reflect only the speeches given in March.

The significance of this is that spin is always relative to some set of similar documents; and, in the Democratic campaign at least, the substance and tone of the conversation has changed substantially in the past few weeks. All candidates have moved away from presenting themselves as people to presenting their policies (McCain is back talking about himself, but this isn’t captured in this set of speeches).

Spin in speeches in March

9 is Obama’s race speech, 10 is his Iraq speech.

McCain still shows low levels of spin. However, the position of Obama and Clinton has largely reversed. Clinton shows high levels of spin, suggesting that her policy speeches are being simplified from the way she would usually speak (which is plausible). Obama continues to increase his level of first-person singular pronoun use, suggesting that he remains confident that he has won the nomination, despite the media’s attempts to keep stirring the pot.

Update: US presidential election spin

I’ve updated the spin analysis to reflect the speeches given up to the last weekend in March.

Spin to March 28th

McCain: red dots, Clinton: blue dots; Obama: blue stars.

You can see a transition in the type of speeches, as candidates move away from speeches intended to introduce themselves as people to speeches that express policy. These look inherently more spinful compared to the earlier speeches, at least for McCain and Clinton. Arguably some of Obama’s movement is also because of the same transition.

The trends in spin are shown in the following figures:


McCain to March 28th


Clinton to March 28th


Obama to March 28th

Although there is a general trend to speeches that score higher on spin than earlier in the campaign, Obama still leads the pack in levels of spin. I will pull out the recent speeches and repeat the analysis to get a new baseline from current content, and see whether this pattern holds true. Results in a day or two.

Changing spin over time

I’ve updated yesterday’s results to include the prepared text of Obama’s speech on Iraq yesterday. The new speech, numbered 39 in the figure, is one of his most spinful.

Spin in speeches to March 19th

I’ve also looked at how Clinton’s and Obama’s spin has changed over time.

Clinton started out talking fairly straight, but her spin has been increasing (lower on the graph) recently.

Clinton spin over time

Obama’s level of spin has always been quite high. However, after a patch of much less spin, his last two speeches, on race and on Iraq, have had very high levels of spin.

Obama’s spin over time

It’s also interesting how much variation there is from speech to speech. Some of this is probably due to the topic; speeches that involve telling one’s own story naturally produce lower spin scores, and all three candidates spend some time helping people get to know them (or their personas :-) ). There may be some variation because of which speechwriter(s) actually created the text. We were surprised, initially, that there were typical levels of spin because any speech is the product of several people, not just one. But it seems like a good speechwriter must produce something that the candidate is able to say in a natural way, and so aligns with what the candidate would have said.

I don’t know why these figures render so poorly. Any suggestions appreciated.

This is the beginning of the Easter weekend. I won’t post again until Tuesday, unless something time-sensitive happens.

Obama — return of the spin

The big speech on race that Obama made yesterday stimulated me to bring my analysis of the level of spin the candidates are using up to date.

Small clips of Obama talking about issues around his pastor sounded like they contained very high level of spin, especially wonderful phrases like “we need to think about that” (code for “YOU need to think about that”)

The figure below shows projections of all of the candidates speeches (as they appear on their websites), projected onto a axis that represents spin. The red dots are McCain speeches; the blue dots are Clinton speeches; and the blue stars are Obama speeches.

For each candidate, the speeches are in data order: 1-5 McCain; 6-21 Clinton; and 22-38 Obama.


Link to a copy for better readability (maybe)

Obama had a major reduction in spin in all of his speeches around Feb 24th. Although his speeches contain more spin than either of the other two candidates, even his speeches are of two different kinds. Some, such as 37 (US Admirals and Generals) and 28 (Reclaiming the American Dream — autobiography) have quite low spin. Others, such as yesterday’s (38), his speech when he lost Texas and Ohio (36), and his Great Need of the Hour speech (23) have high levels of spin.

You can see that the amount of spin in yesterday’s speech worked. The pundits are impressed; it’s the greatest speech about race in a generation, apparently. It was a good speech. But, perhaps, it wasn’t quite the real Obama.

I stick my my interpretation of the changing spin. Around Feb 24th Obama became convinced that he had won the nomination. Every time since then that something has happened to shed doubt on that, any kind of pressure, and he retreats behind his higher-spin language.

Clinton is also feeling the pressure. 3 of her 4 most recent speeches have had much higher levels of spin than she usually uses.

Levels of spin are not consciously controlled (see earlier posts), so they provide an insight into the mental landscape and framing that is driving each of the candidates.

Segment: CBC Radio’s “The House”

I did an interview with CBC Radio’s parliamentary news program “The House” which will be on air on Saturday morning from 9 a.m. on CBC Radio 1 (in Canada and the northern tier of the U.S.).

I talked about spin and deception in the U.S. presidential campaign and the Ethics Committee hearings about the so-called Airbus affair (Mulroney and Schreiber).

Results from the analysis of the Ethics Committee hearings are inconclusive so far, but I will eventually do some more analysis, and perhaps write about the results here.

The audio is

“I” versus “we” revisited

Many people intuitively think of “I” and “we” as two ends of a continuum, where the ends are something like:

“I”, Hillary Clinton, egotistical, one-person band


“we”, Barack Obama, inclusive, working together

In all of the work we’ve done analyzing text, the frequencies of “I” and “we” are uncorrelated, so that knowing one tells you nothing about the other. In other words, there are people who use high rates of both, some who use “I” a lot but not “we”, some who use “we” a lot but not “I”, and some who use very few of both. So any idea of a continuum is rather misleading.

From the point of view of deception, it’s the frequency of “I” that matters: high rates equal openness, low rates equal a facade.

Until a week ago, Obama was using very low rates of “I” and so I’ve argued that he was spinning hard; while Clinton uses much higher rates, and so is presenting something closer to her “real self”. (Since last weekend, Obama has changed his use of “I”.)

It also matters what kind of context the speech is made in, most importantly how much the speaker is constrained in how they can speak. The signals of deception are much clearer in free statements than they are in responses to questions. There are quite large differences in language use between the opening statements in debates, and the subsequent answers to questions, even though politicians are good at using questions as a platform for saying what they wanted to say anyway.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether the speech is scripted, as most official speeches are, or extempore (off the cuff). Obviously a formal speech is not usually written by the speaker. It seems, though, that speech writers must capture language patterns that the speaker is comfortable with to be successful at the job. So scripted speeches tend to have the language patterns of the speaker, and not of the speech writer. It may also be that a speaker adjusts the use of the the little words that are important for detecting deception on the fly; we think of this as making tiny, unimportant deviations from the script, but they may actually be extremely important.

Obama thinks he has the nomination

In my previous post, I pointed out that Obama has changed the way in which he uses first-person singular pronouns — increasing them dramatically, a strong signal that he has reduced the amount of spin he is using.

I wasn’t sure why this was happening. In the debate this evening, he’s using the same increased level of first-person singular pronouns.

The change is truly dramatic.

I think perhaps he has decided that he has the nomination, and he’s stepping out from behind the careful facade that he’s used to get this far. Certainly he learned something this weekend that has changed his attitude to the campaign. I don’t think that this much of a change could be managed consciously.

It’s a big change.

“I” versus “we”

A number of people have noticed that there are substantial differences in the way Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama use pronouns. This is part, but not the whole story about deceptiveness and spin in communication, as I’ve talked about in earlier postings.

The conventional explanation goes something like this:

“Clinton says “I” a lot because she’s egotistical, or because she plans to get things done, with or without the help of other people. Obama says “we” a lot because he is inclusive and wants to develop a shared dream that all can be involved in.”

This view is completely wrong, although it’s probably true that Obama, at some time, developed his use of “we” because he thought or was told that it would create an inclusive impression.

The reality is almost exactly the opposite. People who use first-person singular pronouns (“I”, “me”, “my”) do so, unconsciously, because they are being open, warm, and low status.

People who use first-person plural pronouns (“we”,”us”,”ours”) are not being as open, especially if the speaker is a man. Men use such pronouns as a velvet glove around an iron fist, a way to command without the appearance of command.

How do I know this? The models of language have been derived empirically, much of it the work of James Pennebaker and his group. They have studied the language that people use in known situations, and derived word usage profiles that have enabled them to draw these kinds of conclusions.

Obama uses the language he does because it works — people do perceive him as inclusive. But that doesn’t mean that that’s his real view of the situation. Clinton has adopted, consciously or not, an approach that presents her real self much more directly

It’s not all about pronouns. Other important components are exclusive words (“but”,”nor” which both McCain and Clinton have used in the past week!); negative emotion words (“angry”); and action verbs (“going”).

Obama’s changing pronouns

I pointed out in an earlier post that first-person pronoun use is a signal for warmth and openness, and that Obama uses such pronouns at very low rates — much less often than Clinton and McCain.

This is changing. Here is an extract from a speech on February 13th (first-person singular pronouns in red):

It was nearly a century ago that the first tractor rolled off the assembly line at this plant. The achievement didn’t just create a product to sell or profits for General Motors. It led to a shared prosperity enjoyed by all of Janesville. Homes and businesses began to sprout up along Milwaukee and Main Streets. Jobs were plentiful, with wages that could raise a family and benefits you could count on.

Prosperity hasn’t always come easily. The plant shut down for a period during the height of the Depression, and major shifts in production have been required to meet the changing times. Tractors became automobiles. Automobiles became artillery shells. SUVs are becoming hybrids as we speak, and the cost of transition has always been greatest for the workers and their families.

But through hard times and good, great challenge and great change, the promise of Janesville has been the promise of America – that our prosperity can and must be the tide that lifts every boat; that we rise or fall as one nation; that our economy is strongest when our middle-class grows and opportunity is spread as widely as possible. And when it’s not – when opportunity is uneven or unequal – it is our responsibility to restore balance, and fairness, and keep that promise alive for the next generation. That is the responsibility we face right now, and that is the responsibility I intend to meet as President of the United States.

We are not standing on the brink of recession due to forces beyond our control. The fallout from the housing crisis that’s cost jobs and wiped out savings was not an inevitable part of the business cycle. It was a failure of leadership and imagination in Washington – the culmination of decades of decisions that were made or put off without regard to the realities of a global economy and the growing inequality it’s produced.

It’s a Washington where George Bush hands out billions in tax cuts year after year to the biggest corporations and the wealthiest few who don’t need them and don’t ask for them – tax breaks that are mortgaging our children’s future on a mountain of debt; tax breaks that could’ve gone into the pockets of the working families who needed them most.

One “I”!

Now look at this extract from February 24th:

Our economy has been struggling for some time now. And as I‘ve traveled across Ohio, I‘ve seen the face of this economy – a mother who told me she can’t afford health care for her sick child; a father who’s worried he won’t be able to send his children to college; and seniors who’ve seen their pensions disappear because the companies they gave their lives to went bankrupt.

I don’t have to tell you about this. Folks around here have been directly impacted by the changes in our economy – whether it was the loss of steel jobs over the past few decades, or the closing of the Ford plant that was here for so long. And folks in this area are still worried about whether they’re going to lose their jobs and how they’re going to make ends meet if that happens.

Now, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that we can’t stop globalization in its tracks and that some of these jobs aren’t coming back. But what I refuse to accept is that we have to stand idly by while workers watch their jobs get shipped overseas. We need a president who’s working as hard for you as you’re working for your families. And that’s the kind of President I intend to be.

I‘ve proposed a job-creation agenda that starts with making sure trade works for American workers. We can’t keep passing unfair trade deals like NAFTA that put special interests over workers’ interests.

Now, Senator Clinton has been going to great lengths on the campaign trail to distance herself from NAFTA. Yesterday, she said NAFTA was “negotiated” by the first President Bush, not by her husband. But let’s be clear: it was her husband who got NAFTA passed. In her own book, Senator Clinton called NAFTA one of “Bill’s successes” and “legislative victories.”

And yesterday, Senator Clinton also said I‘m wrong to point out that she once supported NAFTA. But the fact is, she was saying great things about NAFTA until she started running for President. A couple years after it passed, she said NAFTA was a “free and fair trade agreement” and that it was “proving its worth.” And in 2004, she said, “I think, on balance, NAFTA has been good for New York and America.” One million jobs have been lost because of NAFTA, including nearly 50,000 jobs here in Ohio. And yet, ten years after NAFTA passed, Senator Clinton said it was good for America. Well, I don’t think NAFTA has been good for America – and I never have.

This represents a huge shift in word usage — a much more direct presentation of himself. It’s hard to know what to make of this. Perhaps he read some of my earlier commentary :-) or perhaps he feels much more strongly about the content of the second speech, and so let’s more of himself come through (although the content doesn’t seem too different).

Notice that his usage of “we” hasn’t dropped much. Usage of first-person singular and first-person plural pronouns has tended to be independent in the datasets we’re studied.

Spin in the US Presidential Election

One of the places where I look for traces of bad guys is in the text they produce. An important aspect of this is detecting when someone is being deceptive.

It turns out that deception is signalled quite clearly by changes in the way a speaker uses function words, little words such as prepositions, auxiliary verbs and pronouns. Unfortunately, we as humans are not equipped with the ‘hardware’ to detect these changes, especially in real-time.

Deception covers a wide range from outright lying to socially acceptable forms such as white lies and negotiation. Political spin falls somewhere in the middle of this range — politicians want to reach out to as many voters as possible and they get tempted into saying things they don’t quite believe. Spin is one of those irregular verbs:

I inform my supporters

You spin

He panders

I’ve looked at the amount of spin in the speeches of the three current contenders in the US presidential election. There are substantial differences. The most important signals of the presence of spin are: low rates of first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) and low rates of exclusive words, those words that introduce a modifying phrase or clause (or, but, however).

McCain’s characteristic style is heavy with ‘I’ and so we can conclude that he really is talking straight. His denial of the NYT story of his alleged relationship with a female lobbyist is entirely convincing because of his word use when he talked about it at the press conference.

Clinton’s spin is also low, mostly because she uses large numbers of exclusive words — wonkishness coming through. She, also, is presenting more or less the real person she is.

Obama, on the other hand, shows all the signs of high levels of spin. I’m not saying that this is deliberate; but it does seem that he is presenting a facade that is not who he really is, at least to a greater extent than McCain and Clinton.

Obama’s speeches depend, for their success, on his delivery. If you read the text of his speeches, they are quite dry. If he did not use the pronoun ‘we’ so often, they would seem even drier.

His use of ‘we’ is interesting. This pronoun is often thought of, intuitively, as conveying a kind of inclusiveness. When women use it, this is often the case. However, when men use it, it is often as a velvet glove to cover an iron fist. In other words, men tend to use it as a distancing mechanism.

Why is Obama so successful? Because he is, at some level, telling people what they want to hear. This is a risky strategy. We don’t have a lot of history to go by, but it seems as if the candidate who spins the least tends to win elections. It also seems that the candidate who uses first-person singular pronouns more than first-person plural pronouns also tends to win — because this conveys greater optimism, likeability, and humility.
Here are some of the results of my analysis of recent speeches


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