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.

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