Posts Tagged 'Obama'

You heard it here first

As I predicted on August 8th, Obama has won the U.S. presidential election. The prediction was made based on his higher levels of persona deception, that is the ability to present himself as better and more wonderful than he actually is. Romney developed this a lot during the campaign and the gap was closing, but it wasn’t enough.

On a side note, it’s been interesting to notice the emphasis in the media on factual deception, and the huge amount of fact checking that they love to do. As far as I can tell, factual deception has at best a tiny effect on political success, whether because it’s completely discounted or because the effect of persona is so much stronger. On the record, it seems to me to be a tough argument that Obama has been a successful president, and indeed I saw numerous interviews with voters who said as much — but then went on to say that they would still be voting for him. So I’m inclined to the latter explanation.

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.

Update of persona deception in the US presidential election to early September

These results are somewhat limited by the low number of Romney speeches that seem to be posted on the web; and do not include any of the convention speeches.
Recall that persona deception is the attempt by politicians to appear better than they are; that this is a form of deception detectable by the Pennebaker deception model; and that, all things being equal, the candidate who presents him/herself as most wonderful will win.
This figure shows the level of persona deception in speeches, where red is Obama and blue is Romney. The straight line is the axis of deception with high sores at the red end and low scores at the green end.

The pattern is very much as it was a few months ago; and, on this evidence, Obama is still on track to win.

Here’s a great example of high scoring Obama:

“…you are aware that there is a pretty intense campaign going on right now. And the reason it’s intense is because the choice that we face in November could not be bigger. It’s not just a choice between two candidates. It’s not even just a choice between two parties. More than any election in recent memory, this is a choice between two fundamentally different paths for our country’s future.”

Not a first-person singular pronoun to be seen; hardly an exclusive word. And it could have been said by anyone.


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.

Update — persona deception from May to early August in the US presidential race

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I compute “persona deception” scores for political figures. These measure all kinds of deception but, in the political arena, most of the deception is about candidates portraying themselves as better, nicer, wiser, and more competent than they really are (rather than factual misstatements).

Now that the US presidential race is down to two, I’ve done the analysis on their available speeches from the beginning of May up to the present (early August). Obama has made many more speeches (I’ve included both ‘campaign’ and ‘fundraiser’ speeches — I don’t know how he’s found the time to do anything else since there are three and four speeches apparently most days).

Here is the basic figure:

The line is the axis of scores, with high scores at the red end and low scores at the green end. The red crosses are Obama speeches, and the blue crosses Romney speeches. You can see that Obama’s scores (for example, projecting each point onto the line) are much higher. It seems to be the case that, all things being equal, the candidate with the higher persona deception scores wins an election. If this data holds up through the remaining 3 months, this can be considered a prediction. That’s certainly what happened in the 2008 cycle, which you can see by looking back in this blog.

For the technically minded, the two-factor structure here is often seen faintly because an individual’s use of markers such as first-person singular pronouns is often fairly uncorrelated with their use of exclusive words such as “but” and “or”. It’s more pronounced in this case by Romney’s high rate of use of “I” while Obama tends to prefer “I’m”. Overall, Obama’s high scores come from: high rates of “I’m”, high rates of “go” and “going”, and low rates of “but” and “or”. If you want to find out more, this analysis is based on James Pennebaker’s deception model, which we’ve extended by using a dimensionality reduction (so that scores are projections onto a set of eigenvectors rather than sums of marker frequencies).

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.

Negative words in the campaign

Yesterday we looked at the use of positive words in the campaign. Today, I want to present the use of negative words.

We saw the President Obama is much better at using positive words than the Republican contenders; but they are all about the same at using negative words. Note that these two flavors of words are not necessarily opposites; someone can use both positive and negative words at high rates (although that itself might be interesting).

Here are the speeches according to their patterns of negative word use:

Again, distance from the origin indicates intensity of negative word use, and direction indicates different words being used.

Romney has the strongest use of negative words (and the associated words are ones like “disappointments” and “worrying”). Ron Paul also has quite strong use of negative words. His word choices are quite different from those of the other candidates, though; they include “bankrupt”, “flawed” and “inconvenient”.

President Obama and Gingrich have moderate levels of negative word use; the most popular word for both of them is “problem”, followed by “challenge”.

Santorum has the lowest levels of negative word use of all five of them.

The differences are interesting because they shed some light on how each candidate views those aspects of the situation that are not favorable to them. Obama and Gingrich have a more proactive view: negatives to them are problems. The other candidates have a more outward focus on the source of difficulties and, at the same time, a more negative inward focus, that is they use negative words that reflect how they feel about themselves.

I also ran an experiment weighting the positive words positively and the negative words negatively, to see if there is any ranking from, as it were, most positive person to most negative person. It turns out that there isn’t such a ranking. All of them use mixtures of positive and negative words, different mixtures for each, but all of about the same ratio of positivity to negativity.

Positive words in the campaign

Yesterday I posted about the content of the speeches of the campaigners for the 2012 presidential election cycle: the Republican contenders and President Obama. Today I have similar results for the use of positive words.

Here are the speeches:

The figure should be interpreted like this:  distance from the origin indicates intensity of positive word use; direction indicates the use of a different set of positive words. So President Obama is much more positive than the Republican contenders, of which Gingrich is noticeably more positive than the rest. These are only based on the use of positive words so a placement close to the origin should be interpreted as the absence of positive words, not any kind of negativity (stay tuned). In other words, speeches near the origin are not positive (they could be either neutral or negative but this analysis can’t differentiate).

Some of the positive words associated with President Obama are: “profitable”, “creative”, “efficiency” and “outstanding”.

Some of the positive words associated with Gingrich are: “tremendous”, “optimistic”, “gains”, “happiness”, and “positive” itself.

You can see why the Republican approval numbers are dropping — people pick up on the tone of speeches, and they are attracted to positive language — which they aren’t getting. Even Gingrich’s positive words are mostly about the improvement (perceived) in his chances, not in the wider US situation.

Content in Presidential Campaign Speeches

Last week I posted details of the level of “persona deception” among the Republican presidential candidates and President Obama. Persona deception measures how much a candidate is trying to present himself as “better” in some way than he really is. This is the essence of campaigning — we don’t elect politicians based on the quality of their proposals; and we don’t fail to elect them because they tell us factual lies. Almost everything is based on our assessment of character which we get from appearance and behavior, and also from language.

Today I’ll post a description of the different content of the speeches so far in 2012. This is less informative than levels of deception, but it does give some insight into what candidates are thinking is of interest or importance to the voters they are currently targeting. Here is an overview of the topic space:

You can see that most of the Republican candidates are talking about very similar things. In fact, the speeches in the upper right-hand corner are associated strongly with words such as “greatness”, “freedom”, “opportunity”, “principles” and “prosperity” — all very abstract nouns without much content that could come back to haunt them.

Gingrich’s speeches towards the bottom of the figure are quite different, although still associated with quite abstract words: “bureaucracy”, “media”, “pipeline”, “elite”, “establishment”. These are almost all things that he is against — stay tuned for an analysis of negative word use later in the week.

Obama’s speeches, on the left-hand side, are heavily oriented to manufacturing associated with words such as: “cars”, “hi-tech”, “plant”, “oil”, “demand”, “prices”.

What a candidate chooses to talk about seems to be a mix of his personal hobbyhorses (at the time) and some judgement of what issues are of interest to the general public, or at least which can create daylight between one candidate’s position and the others. From this perspective, Gingrich separates himself from the other Republicans quite well. Somewhat surprisingly, Ron Paul’s content is not very different from that of Romney and Santorum. Probably this can be accounted for as a function of the three of them all trying to appeal to a very similar segment of the base. Whether Gingrich is consciously trying to address different issues, or whether his history or personality compel him to is not clear.

2012 US Election, Republicans plus President Obama

Yesterday I posted details about the levels of persona deception in the speeches by the Republican candidates since the beginning of 2012. In striking contrast to the 2008 cycle, the speeches fall along a single axis, indicating widespread commonalities in the way that they use words, particularly the words of the deception model.

Today I’ve included President Obama’s speeches this year in the mix. I’ve tried to select only those speeches where there was an audience. Of course, for a sitting president, the distinction between an ordinary speech and a campaign speech is difficult to draw. Almost all of these are labelled as campaign events at

Here is the plots of the persona deception levels, with Obama’s speeches added in magenta.

Generally speaking, Obama’s levels of persona deception (see yesterday’s post to be clear on what this means) are in the low range compared to the Republican presidential candidates. This is quite different from what happened in the 2008 cycle, where his levels were almost always well above those of McCain and Clinton. It’s not altogether surprising, though. First, he can no longer be the mirror in which voters see what they want to see since he has a substantial and visible track record. Second, he doesn’t have to try as hard to project a persona (at least at this stage of the campaign) since he has no competitor. I expect that his values will climb as the campaign progresses, particularly after the Republican nominee becomes an actual person and not a potential one.

The interesting point is the outlier at the top left of the figure. This is Obama’s speech to AIPAC. Clearly this is not really a campaign speech, so the language might be expected to be different. On the other hand, if it were projected onto the single-factor line formed by the other speeches, it would be much more towards the deceptive end of that axis. Since the underlying model detects all kinds of deception, not just that associated with persona deception in campaigns, this may be revealing of the attitude of the administration to the content expressed in this speech.

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.

Obama in the rest of the world

There’s a story in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning making the point that three-quarters of Australians want Obama to win. This is consistent with the reaction to Obama in Europe and, I suppose, many other parts of the world.

But how do they know? Part of the answer at least is that they’ve heard snippets of his speeches — and this is exactly what you’d expect of blue-skies policy speeches. Such speeches reach out to those who are far away.

The danger is that increased exposure to blue-skies policy speeches backfires because the lack of connection to the actual person starts to make them seem too artificial. This doesn’t happen in far-away places because there isn’t enough exposure. But it’s a real possibility in the U.S..

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.