Election winning language patterns

One of the Freakonomics books makes the point that, in football aka soccer, a reasonable strategy when facing a free kick is to stay in the middle of the goal rather than diving to one side or the other — but goaltenders hardly ever follow this strategy because they look like such fools if it doesn’t pay off. Better to dive, and look as if you tried, even if it turns out that you dived the wrong way.

We’ve been doing some work on what kind of language to use to win elections in the U.S. and there are some similarities between the strategy that works, and the goal tending strategy.

We looked at the language patterns of all of the candidates in U.S. presidential elections over the past 20 years, and a very clear language pattern for success emerged. Over all campaigns, the candidate who best deployed this language won, and the margin of victory relates quite strongly to how well the language was used (for example, Bush and Gore used this pattern at virtually identical levels in 2000).

What is this secret language pattern that guarantees success? It isn’t very surprising: high levels of positive words, non-existent levels of negative words, abstract words in preference to concrete ones, and complete absence of reference to the opposing candidate(s).

What was surprising is how this particular pattern of success was learned and used. Although the pattern itself isn’t especially surprising, no candidate used it from the start; they all began with much more conventional patterns: negativity, content-filled policy statements, and comparisons between themselves and the other candidates. With success came a change in language, but the second part of the surprise is that the change happened, in every case, over a period of little more than a month. For some presidents, it happened around the time of their inaugurations; for others around the time of their second campaign, but it was never a gradual learning curve. This suggests that what happens is not a conscious or unconscious improved understanding of what language works, but rather a change of their view of themselves that allows them to become more statesmanlike (good interpretation) or entitled (bad interpretation). The reason that presidents are almost always re-elected is that they use this language pattern well in their second campaigns. (It’s not a matter of changing speechwriting teams or changes in the world and so in the topics being talked about — it’s almost independent of content.)

So there’s plenty of evidence that using language like this leads to electoral success but, just as for goaltenders, no candidate can bring himself or herself to use it, because they’d feel so silly if it didn’t work and they lost.

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