Posts Tagged 'debate'

Results from second Republican debate

Regular readers will know that, especially in a crowded marketplace, politicians try to stand out and attract votes by presenting themselves in the best possible light that they can. This is a form of deception, and carries the word-use signals associated with deception, so it can be measured using some straightforward linguistic analysis.

Generally speaking, the candidate who achieves the highest level of this persona deception wins, so candidates try as hard as they can. There are, however, a number of countervailing forces. First, different candidates have quite different levels of ability to put on this kind of persona (Bill Clinton excelled at it). Second, it seems to be quite exhausting, so that candidates have trouble maintaining it from day to day. Third, the difficulty depends on the magnitude of the difference between the previous role and the new one that is the target of a campaign: if a vice-president runs for president, he is necessarily lumbered with the persona that’s been on view in the previous job; if not, it’s easier to present a new persona and make it seem compelling (e.g. Obama in 2008). Outsiders therefore have a greater opportunity to re-invent themselves. Fourth, it depends on the content of what is said: a speech that’s about pie in the sky can easily present a new persona, while one that talks about a candidate’s track record cannot, because it drags the previous persona into at least the candidate’s mind.

Some kinds of preparation can help to improve the persona being presented — a good actor has to be able to do this. But politicians aren’t usually actors manqué so the levels of persona deception that they achieve from day to day emerge from their subconscious and so provide fine-grained insights into how they’re perceiving themselves.

The results from the second round of debates are shown in the figure:


The red and green points represent artificial debate participants who use all of the words of the deception model at high frequency and low frequency respectively.

Most of the candidates fall into the band between these two extremes, with Rand Paul with the lowest level of persona deception (which is what you might expect). The highest levels of deception are Christie and Fiorina, who had obviously prepped extensively and were regarded as having done well; and Jindal, who is roughly at the same level, but via completely different word use.

Comparing these to the results from the first round of debates, there are two obvious changes: Trump has moved from being at the low end of the spectrum to being in the upper-middle; and Carson has moved from having very different language patterns from all of the other candidates to being quite similar to most of them. This suggests that both of them are learning to be better politicians (or being sucked into the political machine, depending on your point of view).

The candidates in the early debate have clustered together on the left hand side of the figure, showing that there was a different dynamic in the two different debates. This is an interesting datum about the strength of verbal mimicry.

Republican candidates’ debate: persona deception results

Here are results from the first Republican debate, combining the early and prime-time material into a single corpus.

There’s more detail about the theory in the previous post, but the basic story is: an election campaign is a socially sanctioned exercise in deception; factual deception is completely discounted and so doesn’t matter, but the interesting question is the deception required of each candidate to present themselves as better than they really are; and the candidate who can implement this kind of deception best tends to be the winner. Note that, although deception often has negative connotations, there are many situations where it is considered appropriate, allowed, or condoned: negotiation, dating, selling and marketing — and campaigns are just a different kind of marketing. Sometimes this is called, in the political context, “spin” but it’s really more subtle than that.

The basic plot show the variation in level of deception, aggregated over all of the turns by each candidate during the debate. The line is the deception axis; the further towards the red end, the stronger the deception. Other variation is caused by variations in the use of different words of the model — different styles.


These results aren’t terribly surprising. Both Fiorina and Huckabee have broad media experience and so are presumably good at presenting a facade appropriate to many different occasions (and no wonder Fiorina is widely regarded as having “won” the early debate). Trump has low levels of deception — that’s partly because he doesn’t bother with a facade, and partly because the more well-known a person is, the harder it is to successfully present a different facade.

Note, again unsurprisingly, that Carson, while in the middle of the pack on the deception axis, has quite different language patterns from any of the others. That’s partly opportunity — he wasn’t asked the same kind of questions — but partly not being a professional politician.

deceptdocszoomThis figure zooms in to show the structure of the pack in the centre. There isn’t a lot of difference, which reinforces the takeaway that these debates didn’t make a lot of different, positively or negatively, for most of the candidate.

The contributions of language to the ranking can be looked at by drilling down into this table:

wordpatternThe rows are candidates in alphabetical order (Fiorina 5, Huckabee 8, Perry 13, Trump 15), the columns are 42 of the words of the deception model that were actually used in decreasing order of overall frequency, and the blocks are darker in colour when a word used by a candidate makes a greater contribution to the model. The top words were: I, but,  going,  my,  me, or, go, take, look, lead, run, rather, without, move, and hate. So Huckabee’s high score comes primarily from low use of first-person singular pronouns, while Fiorina’s comes from heavier use of lower-ranked words that most others didn’t use. There are qualitative similarities between Fiorina’s language and Carson’s (row 2).

In previous presidential election campaigns, the candidate who managed to present the best facade in the strongest way was the winner.

A separate question is: what kind of facade should a candidate choose? We have empirical results about that too. A winning persona is characterised by: ignoring policy issues completely, ruthlessly eliminating all negative language, using plenty of positive language, and ignoring the competing candidates. Although, at one level, this seems obvious, no candidate and no campaign can bring themselves to do it until their second presidential campaign. But not only does it predict the winner, the margin of victory is also predictable from it as well.

Including the results of the third debate

Just a quick update from the persona deception rankings from yesterday, to include the text of the third debate (assuming that each statement is free form, which is slightly dubious).

Here’s the figure:

Persona deception scores after the third debate

You can see that they are running neck and neck when it comes to persona deception. Adding in the third debate changes the semantic space because the amount of text is so large compared to a typical campaign speech. The points corresponding to debates lie in the middle of the pack suggesting that neither is trying to hard to present themselves as better than they are — this is probably typical of a real-time adversarial setting where there aren’t enough cognitive resources to get too fancy.

Update on persona deception in the US presidential election

Recall that persona deception is the attempt, by a politician, to seem more wonderful than s/he actually is. It’s a form of deception, and can be detected fairly readily using the Pennebaker deception model. As I mentioned in the previous post, it relies on the ability to speak in a freeform (i.e. unprompted) way. However, both of the presidential debates so far have used the questions only as faint stimulators of pre-prepared talking points so I’m including them (but some caveats apply).

Here is the picture of the levels of persona deception over time, where I’ve changed to a more conventional red for Romney and blue for Obama.

red – Romney; blue – Obama

Apart from a few high-scoring speeches by Romney, there isn’t much separation between the two candidates. The differentiating between top-left and bottom-right is mostly driven by Obama’s heavy use of “I’m” and one of two other words that Romney doesn’t use much. The debates are labelled by the squares — it’s clear that there isn’t much difference between their debate speeches and their stump speeches, which is interesting because the former are less scripted.

However, this is a big change from my previous analysis just after the conventions. At that point Obama’s levels of persona deception were much higher than Romney’s. The change suggests that Romney has become much better at presenting the current persona (or, alternatively, that the persona he is now presenting is closer to the “real” man). Since the candidate who can  best present a strong persona tends to win, this suggests that the candidates are much closer than they were.

We will see what the 3rd debate brings forth tonight…

Deception in the US Presidential Debates

You might be wondering if I’m going to be posting scores for the levels of persona deception in this evening’s presidential debate (and subsequent ones).

There’s a problem: the deception model relies on the rates at which certain kinds of words occur. In question-and-answer situations such as interrogations, and debates, the language of the questions drives, to some extent, the language of the answer. So we can’t get a clean read on the level of persona deception of the respondent without factoring out that part of the response that doesn’t come, so to speak, from inside the respondent’s head.

We can’t do this factoring yet, although we are making some progress. One of my students has developed a technique for “correcting” the word frequencies in an answer to allow for the prompting effects of words in the question. For example, using “you” in a question tends, not surprisingly, to alter the rates of pronouns such as “I” in the answer. The problem is complicated by the fact that the effects of the prompting don’t seem to be independent of the mental state of the respondent, something that others have noticed in forensic settings.

So the bottom line is that the deception model, thought effective in freeform situations such as speeches, remains problematic in interrogatory settings. The effect of a question seems to die away about 50 words into an answer, so there will be opportunities to look at levels of persona deception in longer responses, of which there will probably not be a shortage.

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.

First U.S. Presidential Debate Results

Debates are a great opportunity to examine candidates’ languages because they are less scripted. The candidates prep answers to typical questions, but the actual words used to deliver them are their own.

The problem with most debates is that they are question-driven, and this changes the dynamics of deception. The format of the first debate used questions mainly as hooks to start statements, so this was much less of a problem.

As usual, I’m assuming that people vote for candidates they like, rather than candidates who are most competent. Hence it is always the right strategy for candidates to appear more likable and appealing than they might really be.

Candidates can use four strategies for their debate presentation:

  1. Make blue-skies policy statements, with high spin. This reaches out to the maximal number of potential new supporters; but the attraction may not last very long precisely because the content is not connected to the candidate as a person.
  2. Make blue-skies policy statements, with low spin. This is a waste of an opportunity.
  3. Make track-record policy statements, with high spin. This reaches out to people who are on the boundaries of supporters, typically independents. If it can be made to work, this is probably the best possible strategy option, but it is hard to do. The problem is that the link to the candidate as an individual who has done or is going to do particular things makes it hard to also appear to be more attractive to people who might not like the things done or planned.
  4. Make track-record policy statements, with lower spin. This is a good strategy for expanding those who favor a particular candidate (if you can’t do 3) because those who are attracted are attracted more strongly and so more likely to stay attracted.

In the debate on Friday, both candidates made a hash of answering the first two questions (on the financial bailout). They had obviously not prepped questions in this area, and hadn’t even had much of a chance to talk about the issues — so their speech was very choppy and they kept changing their minds about what they were going to say half way through sentences.

On the remaining questions, it is clear that Obama was going for strategy 1, while McCain was going for strategy 4, to the extent that they made conscious or partly-conscious choices about what kinds of answers to give. The levels of spin in response to each of the 8 questions are shown in the figure below.

Comparative spin for 8 questions

Comparative spin for 8 questions

As usual, red is McCain and blue is Obama. Obama’s level of spin is high throughout (once he gets going) and his answers tend to be either of the form “we must do something” or “something must be done”. This high-spin strategy worked, and he is generally reckoned to have won the debate. The risk of this strategy, however, is that the attraction doesn’t stick; and I heard at least two commentators complain that Obama was so vague that it was hard to work out where he really stood on any issue. So there is danger here that, as people hear Obama more, they will be less and less impressed.

McCain’s levels of spin vary much more substantially. His two high-spin segments were in response to questions about the lessons of Iraq and the threat from Iran. In the first case, his answer was both short and off-topic; in the second he launched into a conversation about Obama’s statements about meeting with world leaders, interleaved with historical remarks about Nixon and China etc.. It looked like he was trying for his typical track-record policy statements, but he didn’t succeed very well because he kept dropping back into blue-skies policy. Thus there were answers that might have made an impact on independents, but he spent more time competing for those further away from his positions. By doing so less coherently than Obama, he probably didn’t do as well with any group. McCain has developed a partial way to get the effect of strategy 3 – he creates sandwich speeches, with chunks of low-spin, this-is-what-I’m-like content at the beginning and end, and blue-skies policy in the middle.

As debate speakers, both were quite poor. They were like my students who, having prepared an answer to an expected exam question, use it even though it doesn’t quite fit the question they were actually asked. I know that politicians become adept at making statements that appear to be answers to questions, but I thought they did it very transparently in the debate.