Differentiating from the other candidate

One of the puzzles of the early phases of the 2012 election campaign was how little the candidates managed to differentiate themselves from one another.

Campaigns are a situation where getting daylight between your candidate and the other guys seems like an essential (and preferably in a good way). But not only did the Republican contenders all tend to use similar words, but they all used similar words to Obama. There was some indication that each had a home ground to which they constantly returned, but it wasn’t different enough from everybody else to differentiate them, certainly not to a human audience. (I’m talking about aspects of this analysis at the Foundations of Open Source Intelligence at the end of the month in Istanbul — politicians acting as surrogates for other highly motivated, sophisticated, well-funded persuaders.)

Now that the campaign has become a two-person one, there is differentiation in the language use of the two candidates, shown here:

The blue crosses are Obama speeches and the red ones Romney speeches. There are clear differences.

So the next question is: do these differences result from differences of content or differences of style? This turns out to be hard to answer. If we pick out particular classes of words (nouns, verbs, adjectives) then there’s more of an overlap, but still a visible difference. For example, here is the equivalent plot for just the nouns, which you would imagine would primarily capture differences in content:

This rather suggests that a big part of the difference is what the candidates are talking about. But when you dig into the data, it turns out that the differentiating nouns are not big content-filled nouns, but little ordinary nouns where the differences are as much about habits and taste as they are about content.

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