Language in Presidential Elections — 2012 Season Opener

Readers of this blog will know that we spent a lot of time analyzing the speeches of the U.S. presidential candidates in the 2008 election. Our primary interest was in the use of the deception model, a linguistic/textual model of how freeform language changes when the speaker/writer is being deceptive.

In the political arena, factual deception, saying things that just ain’t so, plays very little role, perhaps because voters have very low expectations of politicians in this area. What we call persona deception, presenting oneself as a better,wiser,  more powerful, more able, more knowledgeable person than one really is is the heart of successful campaigning. It turns out that the deception model captures deception across the whole range from factual to persona deception, so it gives us a lens to look at candidates and campaigns. What’s more, because language generation is almost entirely subconscious, this lens is hard to fool.

The most important skill candidates and their campaigns have is the ability to reach out to potential voters to convince them that they are better than the other possibilities. The language that they use is an important channel, especially in settings where everyone is conservatively dressed, and standing behind a podium that conceals most of their body language, as the Republican presidential field was in Iowa yesterday.

Strong candidates understand, at least instinctively, that they are not making arguments to convince voters, but presenting themselves as more compelling human beings. Our analysis of the speeches of candidates in the 2008 U.S. presidential election showed that candidates use three different kinds of speeches: blue skies speeches that promise generically good things and could be delivered interchangeably by any candidate – they are aimed at a wide audience; track record speeches that use past achievements to imply special qualifications for future achievements – they are aimed at swing voters; and manifesto speeches that describe a candidate’s personal qualities directly – they are aimed at a candidate’s base and reinforce common identity. But in all three cases, it’s not the content of the speech that matters, but what it implies about the speaker.

Our analysis in the last election cycle showed that Obama was by far the best as presenting himself as a wonderful person, and many voters, and certainly many in the media, projected onto the persona  positive qualities that were perhaps not there. Interestingly, yesterday was the first time I have seen open Democratic buyers remorse about electing Obama, something I predicted would happen from the analysis we did.

The Republican candidates’ debate in Ames showed what a shaky grasp many of the candidates have on how to be a convincing candidate. Of course, this venue was a difficult one. Its overt purpose was for candidates to explain themselves to the local Republican base ahead of the Ames Straw Poll,which would have required largely manifesto content; but national television coverage made it an unmissable opportunity to reach out to a wider, but much more diverse audience, suggesting track record content. Blue skies content is always dangerous in the early stages of a campaign because grand but potentially unwise statements can come back to haunt a candidate.

Manifesto content was indeed popular – for example, we learned how many children almost every candidate has – typical content aimed at the base (“I’m a parent just like you”). Several candidates also tried for track record content, but got it quite wrong. The purpose of a track record speech is not for candidates to read their resumes to the audience; it’s to make the argument “I was able to do A, so you can trust me to be able to do similar-but-larger B” and this second part was notably absent.

Voters also want candidates to be sincere — recall the famous quotation “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made” (Jean Girardoux). This is not just a cute quotation; this is what good politicians are able to do. In Iowa, this was another area where almost everyone stumbled. It was clear that most of the candidates had not only prepared talking point responses to probable questions, but has also rehearsed actual answers. Delivering from a prepared and memorized script and seeming sincere is a difficult business, and actors who can do it reliably command high rewards.  Most of the candidates failed at seeming sincere. Several managed the worst of both worlds by trying to combine their prepared scripts with some ad libbing and came across as quite incoherent. One of the reasons for Gingrich’s strong showing is that he stayed away from scripts and delivered his answers as if he had just thought of them. Huntsman and Romney, in contrast, were especially wooden.

When humans listen to humans, the content matters. But when character is the issue, other aspects of language matter more. Much language generation is subconscious, and therefore beyond a candidate’s control. This is good for voters because it means we can sometimes see through to the real person no matter how sophisticated their speech writers and spin doctors.

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