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.


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