Republican presidential candidates — first analysis of persona deception

Regular readers of this blog will know that I carried out extensive analysis of the speeches of the contenders in the 2008 US presidential election cycle (see earlier postings). I’m now beginning similar analysis for the 2012 cycle, concentrating on the Republican contenders for now.

You will recall that Pennebaker’s deception model enables a set of documents to be ranked in order of their deceptiveness, detected via changes in the frequency of occurrence of 86 words in four categories: first-person singular pronouns, exclusive words, negative-emotion words, and action verbs. Words in the first two categories decrease in the presence of deception, while those in the last two categories increase. The model only allows for ranking, rather than true/false determination, because “increase” and “decrease” are always relative to some norm for the set of documents being considered.

How does this apply to politics? First of all, the point isn’t to detect when a politician is lying (Cynical joke: Q: How do you tell when a politician is lying? A: His lips are moving). Politicians tell factual lies, but this seems to have no impact on how voters perceive them, perhaps because we’re come to expect it. Rather, the kind of deception that is interesting is the kind where a politician is trying to present him/herself as a much better person (smarter, wiser, more competent) than they really are. This is what politicians do all the time.

Why should we care? There are two reasons. The first is that it works — typically the politician who is able to deliver the highest level of what we call “persona deception” gets elected. Voters have to decide on the basis of something, and this kind of presentation as a great individual seems to play more of a role than, say, actual plans for action.

Second, though, watching the changes in the levels of persona deception gives us a window into how each candidate (and campaign) is perceiving themselves (and, it turns out, their rivals) from day to day. Constructing and maintaining an artificial persona is difficult and expensive. Levels of persona deception tend to drop sharply when a candidate becomes confident that they’re doing well; and when some issue surfaces about which they don’t really have a persona opinion because, apparently, it takes time to construct the new piece.

So, with that preliminary, on to some results.

The figure shows the speeches in a space where speeches with greater person deception (spin) are further to the right, and those with less persona deception are further to the left. Ron Paul shows the lowest level of persona deception which is not surprising — nobody has ever accused him of trying to be what he is not. In contrast, Romney shows the highest level of persona deception — again not surprising as he has had to try hardest to make himself appealing to voters. Note that this also predicts that he will do well. Both Gingrich and Santorum occupy the middle ground; both are running on a very overt track record and are not trying as hard to make themselves seem different from who they are. Indeed, candidates with a strong history tend to have lower levels of persona deception simply because it’s very difficult to construct a new, more attractive persona when you already have a strong one. (The two points vertically separated from the rest are the result of a sudden burst of using “I’d” in these two speeches.)

The following figures break out the temporal patterns for the four candidates:

What’s striking about Romney is how much the level of persona deception changes from speech to speech. In the last election cycle, this wasn’t associated with audience type or recent success but seemed to be much more internally driven. This zig-zag pattern is much more the norm than a constant level of persona deception — some mystery remains.


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