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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