Posts Tagged 'politics'

Democratic debates strategy

In an analysis of the language used by US presidential candidates in the last 7 elections, Christian Leuprecht and I showed that there’s a language pattern that predicts the winner, and even the margin. The pattern is this: use lots of positive language, use no negative language at all (even words like ‘don’t’ and won’t’), talk about abstractions not policy, and don’t talk about your opponent(s). (For example, Trump failed on the fourth point, but was good on the others, while Hillary Clinton did poorly on all four.)

In some ways, this pattern is intuitive: voters don’t make rational choices of the most qualified candidate — they vote for someone they relate to.

Why don’t candidates use this pattern? Because the media hates it! Candidates (except Trump) fear being labelled as shallow by the media, even though using the pattern helps them with voters. You can see this at work in the way the opinion pieces decide who ‘won’ the debates.

The Democratic debates show candidates using the opposite strategy: lots of detailed policy, lots of negativity (what’s wrong that I will fix), and lots of putting each other down.

Now it’s possible that the strategy needed to win a primary is different to that which wins a general election. But if you want to assess the chances of those who might make it through, then this pattern will help to see what their chances are against Trump in 2020.

Incumbency effects in U.S. presidential campaigns: Language patterns
matter, Electoral Studies, Vol 43, 95-103.
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0261379416302062

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Voting is not rational choice

Pundits and the media continue to be puzzled by the popularity of Donald Trump. They point out that much of what he says isn’t true, that his plans lack content, that his comments about various subgroups are demeaning, and so on, and so on.

Underlying these plaintive comments is a fundamental misconception about how voters choose the candidate they will vote for. This has much more to do with standard human, in the first few seconds, judgements of character and personality than it does about calm, reasoned decision making.

Our analysis of previous presidential campaigns (about which I’ve posted earlier) makes it clear that this campaign is not fundamentally different in this respect. It’s always been the case that voters decide based on the person who appeals to them most on a deeper than rational level. As we discovered, the successful formula for winning is to be positive (Trump is good at this), not to be negative (Trump is poor at this), not to talk about policy (Trump is good at this), and not to talk about the opponent (Trump is poor at this). On the other hand, Hillary Clinton is poor at all four — she really, really believes in the rational voter.

We’ll see what happens in the election this week. But apart from the unusual facts of this presidential election, it’s easy to understand why Trump isn’t doing worse and Hillary Clinton isn’t doing better from the way they approach voters.

“It’s going to be really great”

Donald Trump continues to be the poster child for our election-winning-language  model: high positive language, as little negative language as possible, and appeals to policy goals without getting into details. The media and pundits are tearing their hair out because he refuses to talk about specifics but, as we predict, it’s working! (Interestingly, I went back and looked at Perot’s language in the 1992 election, and he had more or less the same patterns — and he led the party contenders in national polls for a period in 1992.)

What the media and pundits don’t realise is that incumbent presidents running for a second term use language very similar to Trump’s. It’s just that, with a first-term track record, it’s not as glaringly obvious, and they don’t notice.

Trump’s continuing success

As I posted earlier, our study of previous successful presidential candidates shows that success is very strongly correlated with a particular language model, consisting of:

  • Uniformly positive language
  • Complete absence of negative language
  • Using uplifting, aspirational metaphors rather than policy proposals, and
  • Ignoring the competing candidates

Trump presumably polls well, to a large extent, because he uses this language model (not so much ignoring of the competing candidates recently, but maybe that’s the effect of a primary). This language pattern tends to be used by incumbent presidents running for re-election, and seems to derive from their self-perception as already-successful in the job they’re re-applying for. Trump, similarly, possesses huge self confidence that seems to have the same effect — he perceives himself as (automatically, guaranteed) successful as president.

The dynamic between the successful self-perception issue and the competence issue was hard to separate before; and we’ve used ‘statesmanlike’ to describe the model of language of electoral success. All of the presidential incumbents whom we previously studied had a self-perception of success and a demonstrated competence and we assumed that both were necessary to deploy the required language comfortably and competently. Trump, however, shows that this isn’t so — it’s possible to possess the self-perception of success without the previously demonstrated competence. In Trump’s case, presumably, it is derived from competence in a rather different job: building a financial empire.

The media is in a frenzy about the competence issue for Trump. But our language model explains how it is possible to be popular among voters without demonstrating much competence, or even planned competence, to solve the problems of the day.

Voters don’t care about objective competence in the way that the media do. They care about the underlying personal self-confidence that is revealed in each candidate’s language. The data is very clear about this.

It may even be the rational view that a voter should take. Presidents encounter, in office, many issues that they had not previously formulated a policy for, so self-confidence may be more valuable than prepackaged plans. And voters have learned that most policies do not get implemented in office anyway.

It’s silly to treat Trump as a front runner when no actual vote has yet been cast. But it wouldn’t be surprising if he continues to do well for some time.  Of the other candidates, only Christie shows any sense of the use of positive language but, as a veteran politician, he cannot seem to avoid the need to present policies.

Results from the first Democratic debate

The debate held on Tuesday night pitted one well known figure (Hillary Clinton) against one up and coming figure (Sanders) and three others with no name recognition except among the wonkiest. The differences in exposure and preparation were obvious. I can’t see that it made any difference to anyone’s opinions.

But it remains interesting to see how well each person did at presenting a persona. Extremely well known politicians do not usually have the luxury of presenting themselves with a new, improved persona because the old one is so well known, so it’s common to find that persona deception scores are low for such candidates. For those who aren’t well-known, the strength of their persona is a blend of how well they can do it personally, and how big the gap is between their previous self-image and the persona that they are trying to project. A relatively unknown candidate with a high persona deception score, therefore, is likely to do well; one with a low score probably will not.

Here are the results from this debate:

deceptdocsThe red and greeen points represent artificial word use corresponding to moderately high amd moderately low levels of persona deception. Clinton, as expected (and from my analysis in the 2008 cycle) has low levels of persona deception. Sanders’s levels are in the mid-range. Chafee is sincere, but this won’t help him with his current level of recognition. O’Malley has the highest level of persona deception, which is a positive indicator for him (for what it’s worth in this crowd). Webb is also in the midrange, but his language use is quite different from that of Sanders.

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:

deceptdocs

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.

The secret of Trump’s success

Looking at US presidential elections through the lens of empirical investigation of word use shows that there’s a pattern of language that is associated with electoral success. Those who use it win, and the difference in the intensity of the pattern correlates well with the margin of victory.

The effective pattern is, in a way, intuitive: use positive language, eliminate negative language completely, talk in the abstract rather than about specific policies, and pay no attention to the other candidates.

In other words, a successful candidate should appear “statesmanlike”.

Candidates find it extremely difficult to use this approach — they feel compelled to compare themselves to the other candidates, dragging in negativity, and to explain the cleverness of their policies. Only incumbent presidents, in our investigation, were able to use this language pattern reliably.

I listened to some of Trump’s speech in Texas last night, and I’ve come to see that the media are completely and utterly wrong about why he is doing so well in the polls. It’s not that he’s tapping into a vein of disaffection with the political system; it is that he’s using this language model. In previous cycles, it’s only been incumbent presidents who’ve had the self-confidence to use it, but Trump, of course, has enough self-confidence to start a retail business selling it.

Let’s look at the components of the model:

Positive language: Trump’s positivity is orders of magnitude above that of the other candidates, and in two ways. First, he is relentlessly positive about the U.S. and about the future (catchphrase: “we can do better”). Second, he’s positive about almost everyone he mentions (catchphrase: “he’s a great guy”).

Negative language: Trump doesn’t avoid negativity altogether, but he uses it cleverly. First, his individual negative targets are not the other candidates (by and large) but pundits — Karl Rove and George Will were mentioned last night, but I doubt if more than 1% of the audience could have identified either in a line-up; so this kind of negativity acts as a lightning rod, without making Trump seem mean. And the negative references to others lack the bitterness that often bleeds through in the negative comments of more typical candidates. Second, when he mentions negative aspects of the Obama administration and its policies and actions, he does it be implication and contrast (“that’s not what I would do”, “I could do better”).

Vision not policies: the media cannot stand that Trump doesn’t come out with detailed policy plans, but it’s been clear for a while that voters don’t pay a lot of attention to policies. They’ve learned that (a) there’s a huge gap between what a president can want to do and what he can actually make happen, and (b) policies are generated with one eye on the polls and focus groups, so they often aren’t something that the candidate has much invested in doing in the first place. [It’s incredible that Secretary Clinton ran focus groups to prep her “apology”, which was actually a meta-apology for not having apologized better or earlier.]

Trump has one huge “policy” advantage — he isn’t beholden to donors, and so is freer of the behind-the-scenes pressure that most candidates face. In the present climate, this has to be a huge selling point.

Ignore the other candidates: Trump doesn’t quite do this (and it gets him into trouble), But he’s learning fast — in last night’s speech, he only mentioned a handful of his competitors and his comments about all of them were positive.

If Trump continues to give this kind of speech, then the more exposure he gets, the more voters are going to like him. I remain doubtful that he will be the Republican nominee, but I don’t see him flaming out any time soon. Even if he makes some serious gaffe, he’ll apologize in seconds and move on (in contrast to Clinton who seems determined to make acute issues into chronic ones).


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