Posts Tagged 'McCain'

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.

Reagan vs Obama and McCain

I thought it would be interesting to look at the level of spin in Reagan’s speeches. He shares some characteristics with Obama; not in political opinions but in his ability to motivate an audience, and to be resistant to potentially embarrassing factual issues.
Here is the plot from yesterday’s post comparing Obama and McCain since their conventions, with five campaign speeches (all I could find) by Reagan between the convention and the 1980 election.

Comparing the spin of Reagan, Obama, and McCain

Comparing the spin of Reagan, Obama, and McCain

The points with red stars are Reagan’s speeches. As you can see, his level of spin is much higher than either of today’s candidates. The ability to use high levels of spin without coming across as phony is, of course, what makes an actor, so this is not entirely surprising. And I’ve argued all along that high levels of spin pay off for a politician, and the ability to give high-spin speeches especially to people who do not already like you is a key asset for a politician. Reagan is a good example of this in action.

Spin scores to the end of October

Here is the analysis of levels of spin in Obama and McCain’s speeches up to a few days ago. Usual labelling (refer to previous posts for background).

Spin scores (red - McCain, blue - Obama)

Spin scores (red - McCain, blue - Obama)

The most obvious thing to see in this plot is how McCain’s speeches all tend to lie on one side of the deceptiveness axis while Obama’s tend to lie on the other side. This is because McCain has started using motion words at high rates (and Obama does not). This has a small effect on deceptiveness score, but rates of use of motion verbs are not all that important to signalling deception.

The individual levels of spin from the convention to the end of October are here:





The last time I posted was during the period where Obama’s level of spin was quite low. As you can see, it has risen sharply again in the past week. This suggests that he is not as confident of winning now as he was then — he has consistently shown a pattern of stepping out from his facade and using lower spin when he feels confident about winning.

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.

Update — Spin in US Presidential Election

I’ve looked at the spin in the speeches in the last few weeks, more or less since the convention. The overall picture has remained very similar to earlier stages: Obama’s levels of spin are relatively high compared to McCain’s.

Here is the overall spin plot:

Spin between the conventions and the last week of October

Spin between the conventions and the last week of October

Here are the plots over time for McCain:

McCain's spin

McCain's spin

and Obama:

The most interesting thing here is how much Obama’s level of spin has dropped in the last few speeches. This is very similar to what happened in the weeks (late February) when it became clear that he would get the Democratic nomination. When he feels sure of himself, he steps out from behind his election facade and presents himself much more openly. The extremely low-spin speech is his comedy routine at the Al Smith dinner — presumably the expectation that he should be funny rather than serious made him feel as if he had permission to be himself.

McCain’s high-spin speeches are those when he gives economic history lessons, unlike his typical speech in which he puts more of himself.