More on political spin

I’ve been digging a little deeper into the spin exhibited in the U.S. election so far. My hypothesis, based on the analysis, is that the level of spin in a speech:

  • depends on the subconscious self-perception of the candidate about the state of play of the campaign and his/her relationship to that (as predicted by Pennebaker’s deception model); but…
  • is limited by the opportunity of a particular kind of speech — the speaker cannot be ‘caught’ being deceptive. For example,
    • some policy speeches are free-standing and the candidate is able to put forward any policy without constraint. The level of spin can range from low to high.
    • some policy speeches are continuations of previous policies of the candidate, and so are constrained by previous statements and actions. This is weakness, but also a strength because it allows the candidate’s track record to be invoked. Because of the constraints, the level of spin can range from low to medium.
    • some speeches are ‘manifesto’ or ‘stump’ speeches; they contain policy elements, but are intended to position the candidate; they are more emotionally based than policy driven. The level of spin can range from low to high, but might be expected to be fairly high because of the positioning goal of such speeches.
    • some speeches are intended primarily for supporters: thanking them and keeping them on side. The level of spin could range from low to high but might be expected to be fairly low because there is nothing to prove to such audiences.
  • is slightly affected by the current environment.

Levels of spin are not affected by:

  • recent success or lack of it;
  • audience (they often seem to be an excuse to give a speech)
  • topic

From this point of view, we can see some substantial differences among the candidates.

For policy statements, the ratio of high spin to low spin is:

McCain: 26/5; Obama 24/9; Clinton 4/7

The biggest difference is that Clinton’s policy statements are almost always expressed in terms of what she plans to do, rather than what needs to be done (this may be a gender difference?). She is also a heavy user of action verbs, which to some extent cancels out her use of first-person singular pronouns.

For manifesto statements, the ratio of high spin to low spin is:

McCain: 10/10; Obama 14/4; Clinton 0/16

These speeches are the ones that promise all sorts of good things without getting into specifics. Obama’s numbers are because his standard Change speech is very high spin — “we” is the common pronoun, and there are almost no exclusive words. Clinton’s manifesto speech is again one in which she talks about what she will do, and so scores low. McCain’s manifesto speech tends to be a sandwich, with high first-person pronoun use at the beginning and end, with a lump of straight policy in the middle. The scores go up and down depending on the ratio of the middle to the end.

The supporter speeches are very candidate-specific. The ratios of high spin to low spin are:

McCain 1/0; Obama 8/10; Clinton 0/6

but these don’t mean much — the McCain campaign doesn’t seem to have put many of them on the web page.

Although McCain and Clinton started off in a low-spin mode in the early part of the campaign, McCain has moved to higher levels of spin overall, while Clinton has, if anything, moved the other way. Her late campaign speeches were characterised by statements of the form “I can win but I need your help” which are naturally low-spin.

Obama started with high levels of spin, showed glimpses of lower levels in the mddle of the campaign and when he was put under pressure by the media; and now oscillates between his high-spin Change mantra, and more open speeches on other topics and with other purposes.


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