Posts Tagged 'Clinton'

6.5/7 US presidential elections predicted from language use

I couldn’t do a formal analysis of Trump/Clinton language because Trump didn’t put his speeches online — indeed many of them weren’t scripted. But, as I posted recently, his language was clearly closer to our model of how to win elections than Clinton’s was.

So since 1992, the language model has correctly predicted the outcome, except for 2000 when the model predicted a very slight advantage for Gore over Bush (which is sort of what happened).

People judge candidates on who they seem to be as a person, a large part of which is transmitted by the language they use. Negative and demeaning statements obviously affect this, but so does positivity and optimism.

Presidential speech word patterns

In the continuing saga of presidential campaign speech language, I’ve been analyzing parts of speech that don’t get much attention such as verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. Looking at the way in which each candidate uses such words over time turns up some interesting patterns. I don’t understand their deep significance, but there’s some work suggesting that variability in writing is a sign of health; and Ashby’s Law of requisite variety can be interpreted to mean that the actor in a system with the most available options tends to control the system.

Here are the plots of adjective use (in a common framework) for the 2008 and 2012 candidates (up to the time that Santorum dropped out of the race).

It’s striking how much the patterns over time form a kind of spiral, moving from one particular combination of adjectives to another and another and eventually back to the original pattern. The exception is Obama who displays a much more radial structure, with an adjective combination that he uses a lot, and occasional deviations to something else, but a rapid return to his “home ground”.

You can see (the extremal set of) adjectives and their relationships in this figure:

You can see that they form 3 poles: on the left, adjectives associated with energy policy; at the bottom, adjectives associated with patriotism; and on the right, adjectives associated with defence [yes, it is spelled that way]. This figure can be overlaid on those of the candidates to get a sense of which poles they are visiting. For example, Obama’s “home ground” is largely associated with the energy-related adjectives.

Comparing content in the US presidential campaign 2008 vs 2012

I posted about the content in the 2012 presidential campaign speeches. It’s still relatively early in the campaign so comparisons aren’t necessarily going to reveal a lot, but I went back and looked at the speeches in 2008 by Hillary Clinton, McCain, and Obama; and compared them to the four remaining Republican contenders and President Obama so far this year.

Here’s the result of looking just at the nouns:

The key is:   Clinton — magenta circles; Obama 2008 — red circles, McCain — light blue stars;

Gingrich — green circles; Paul — yellow circles; Romney — blue circles; Santorum — black circles; Obama 2012 — red squares.

Recall that the way to interpret these plots is that points far from the origin are more interesting speeches (in the sense that they use more variable word patterns) while different directions represent different “themes” in the words used.

The most obvious difference is that the topics talked about were much more wide-ranging in 2008 than they have been this year. This may be partly because of the early stage of the campaign, the long Republican primary season keeping those candidates focused on a narrow range of topics aimed at the base, or a change in the world that has focused our collective attention on different, and fewer, topics.

This can be teased out a bit by looking at the words that are associated with each direction and distance. The next figure shows the nouns that were actually used (only those that are substantially above the median level of interestingness are labelled):

You can see that there are four “poles” or topics that differentiate the speech content. To the right are words associated with the economy, but from a consumer perspective. At the bottom are words associated with energy. To the left are actually two groups of words, although they interleave a little. At the lower end are words associated with terrorism and the associated wars and threats. At the upper end are words associated with the human side of war and patriotism.

These two figures can be lined up with each other to get a sense of which candidates are talking about which topics. The 2012 speeches and Obama’s 2008 speeches all lean heavily towards the economic words. In 2008, McCain and Clinton largely talked about the war/security issues, with a slight bias by Clinton towards the patriotism cluster.

Obama’s 2012 speeches tend towards the energy cluster but, at this point, quite weakly given the overall constellation of topics and candidates.

The other thing that is noticeable is how similar the topics for some of the Republican contenders are: their speeches cluster quite tightly.

Content in election speeches

I went back and looked at the collection of speeches by the three contenders in the 2008 U.S.presidential election, not from the point of view of spin, but just looking at what they were about. The results were a little surprising. Despite all of the thinking and polling that goes into a campaign, the speeches were about only three topics.

Structure of word usage in speeches

These three topics are: the economy, associated with words such as crisis, jobs, plan, pay; security, associated with words such as war, threat, Iraq, allies; and family, associated with words such as parents, children, living. This last group features only early in the campaign and a single speech by Obama given on Fathers Day.

It’s no surprise that these topics appear. What does seem surprising is how little else was mentioned: other topics words are all hidden in the center of the figure indicating that their pattern of appearance in not very interesting.

Concluding thoughts on spin the U.S. presidential election

When people think about spin and politicians, they usually assume that spin has to do with either presenting widely agreed facts in a way that puts a particular politician in the best light, or altering the facts by exaggerating or misremembering. Media people are always slightly puzzled when they reveal this kind of spin and find that it has little or no resonance with voters. Hillary Clinton’s memory of landing under sniper fire was a one-day wonder, not a deal-breaker. And there have been many other examples of this kind of spin on both sides during the U.S. presidential campaign, and they have had little impact.

This is because voters don’t choose politicians because of how clever their ideas are , whether they agree with these ideas, or even whether they are noticeably competent (history shows). They don’t listen to the candidates’ speeches and parse them for content. They vote for candidates with whom they feel some kind of resonance. And so they look for features of the candidates as people with which they can identify.

A simple way to say this is that voters look for character rather than policy. But this is still a bit misleading — they don’t don’t think about character in moral terms, but in relationship terms. Not “Is this candidate a good person” but “is this candidate a bit like me”. Moral issues do come into play, but only for those voters to whom moral issues are part of their own self image.

The kind of spin I’ve been following through the U.S. election campaign addresses this issue of presentation, that is to what extent do candidates present themselves, as people, in ways that are not congruent with who they really are, as people. In other words, to what extent do they present a persona or facade that is designed to appeal to a wider range of voters than the unadorned person would?

For both John McCain and Hillary Clinton, the short version is that they have, in general, presented something close to the real person. (This may, of course, be because they developed a political persona that they’ve been using so long that it has become the real them.) There have been ups and downs, and it’s been possible to see what might be going through the mind of the candidate and/or the campaign at certain critical moments, but overall they have presented a consistent persona that seems close to their real personality.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, has consistently presented a persona that does not seem to be very close to the real Obama, about whom we can only guess. This is starting to be more widely appreciated. I’ve heard several commentators say how they find him inscrutable because they simply can’t see the real person behind the presentation.

Spin is only one factor in how voters decide who to vote for, so I can’t make a prediction about who will win tomorrow. What I think is predictable is that, if Obama wins, his approval ratings will drop quite quickly when he becomes president — he simply cannot be all of the things that people are projecting on to him, many of them mutually contradictory. And, as president, his actions will speak louder and more clearly than his campaign speeches about who he really is.

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.

Election spin results covered by New Scientist

There’s an article on, among other things, my work on spin the US election campaign in this week’s issue of New Scientist. You can find it online here. There are also some interesting results from the people who look at facial expressions (pioneered by Ekman) and so voice analysis.