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

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).

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.

deceptdocs

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.

Canadian election 2015: Leaders’ debate

Regular readers will recall that I’m interested in elections as examples of the language and strategy of influence — what we learn can be applied to understanding jihadist propaganda.

The Canadian election has begun, and last night was the first English-language debate by the four party leaders: Stephen Harper, Elizabeth May, Thomas Mulcair, and Justin Trudeau. Party leaders do not get elected directly, so all four participants had trouble wrapping their minds around whether they were speaking as party spokespeople or as “presidential” candidates.

Deception is a critical part of election campaigns, but not in the way that people tend to think. Politicians make factual misstatements all the time, but it seems that voters have already baked this in to their assessments, and so candidates pay no penalty when they are caught making such statements. This is annoying to the media outlets that use fact checking to discover and point out factual misstatements, because nobody cares, and they can’t figure out why.

Politicians also try to present themselves as smarter, wiser, and generally more qualified for the position for which they’re running, and this is a much more important kind of deception. In a fundamental sense, this is what an election campaign is — a Great White Lie. Empirically, the candidate who is best at this kind of persona deception tends to win.

Therefore, measuring levels of deception is a good predictor of the outcome of an election. Recall that deception in text is signalled by (a) reduced use of first-person singular pronouns, (b) reduced use of so-called exclusive words (“but”, “or”) that introduce extra complexity, (c) increased use of action verbs, and (d) increased use of negative-emotion words. This model can be applied by counting the number of occurrences of these words, adding them up (with appropriate signs), and computing a score for each document. But it turns out to be much more effective to add a step that weights each word by how much it varies in the set of documents being considered, and computing this weighted score.

So, I’ve taken the statements by each of the four candidates last night, and put them together into four documents. Then I’ve applied this deception model to these four documents, and ranked the candidates by levels of deceptiveness (in this socially acceptable election-campaign meaning of deceptiveness).

wordseffectsThis figure shows, in the columns, the intensity of the 35 model words that were actually used, in decreasing frequency order. The rows are the four leaders in alphabetical order: Harper, May, Mulcair, Trudeau; and the colours are the intensity of the use of each word by each leader. The top few words are: I, but, going, go, look, take, my, me, taking, or. But remember, a large positive value means a strong contribution of this word to deception, not necessarily a high frequency — so the brown bar in column 1 of May’s row indicates a strong contribution coming from the word “I”, which actually corresponds to low rates of “I”.

deceptdocsThis figure shows a plot of the variation among the four leaders. The line is oriented from most deceptive to least deceptive; so deception increases from the upper right to the lower left.

Individuals appear in different places because of different patterns of word use. Each leader’s point can be projected onto this line to generate a (relative) deception score.

May appears at the most deceptive end of the spectrum. Trudeau and Harper appear at almost the same level, and Mulcair appears significantly lower. The black point represents an artificial document in which each word of the model is used at one standard deviation above neutral, so it represents a document that is quite deceptive.

You might conclude from this that May managed much higher levels of persona deception than the other candidates and so is destined to win. There are two reasons why her levels are high: she said much less than the other candidates and her results are distorted by the necessary normalizations; and she used “I” many fewer times than the others. Her interactions were often short as well, reducing the opportunities for some kinds of words to be used at all, notably the exclusive words.

Mulcair’s levels are relatively low because he took a couple of opportunities to talk autobiographically. This seems intutively to be a good strategy — appeal to voters with a human face — but unfortunately it tends not to work well. To say “I will implement a wonderful plan” invites the hearer to disbelieve that the speaker actually can; saying instead “We will implement a wonderful plan” makes the hearer’s disbelief harder because they have to eliminate more possibilities’ and saying “A wonderful plan will be implemented” makes it a bit harder still.

It’s hard to draw strong conclusions in the Canadian setting because elections aren’t as much about personalities. But it looks as if this leaders’ debate might have been a wash, with perhaps a slight downward nudge for Mulcair.

Election winning language patterns

One of the Freakonomics books makes the point that, in football aka soccer, a reasonable strategy when facing a free kick is to stay in the middle of the goal rather than diving to one side or the other — but goaltenders hardly ever follow this strategy because they look like such fools if it doesn’t pay off. Better to dive, and look as if you tried, even if it turns out that you dived the wrong way.

We’ve been doing some work on what kind of language to use to win elections in the U.S. and there are some similarities between the strategy that works, and the goal tending strategy.

We looked at the language patterns of all of the candidates in U.S. presidential elections over the past 20 years, and a very clear language pattern for success emerged. Over all campaigns, the candidate who best deployed this language won, and the margin of victory relates quite strongly to how well the language was used (for example, Bush and Gore used this pattern at virtually identical levels in 2000).

What is this secret language pattern that guarantees success? It isn’t very surprising: high levels of positive words, non-existent levels of negative words, abstract words in preference to concrete ones, and complete absence of reference to the opposing candidate(s).

What was surprising is how this particular pattern of success was learned and used. Although the pattern itself isn’t especially surprising, no candidate used it from the start; they all began with much more conventional patterns: negativity, content-filled policy statements, and comparisons between themselves and the other candidates. With success came a change in language, but the second part of the surprise is that the change happened, in every case, over a period of little more than a month. For some presidents, it happened around the time of their inaugurations; for others around the time of their second campaign, but it was never a gradual learning curve. This suggests that what happens is not a conscious or unconscious improved understanding of what language works, but rather a change of their view of themselves that allows them to become more statesmanlike (good interpretation) or entitled (bad interpretation). The reason that presidents are almost always re-elected is that they use this language pattern well in their second campaigns. (It’s not a matter of changing speechwriting teams or changes in the world and so in the topics being talked about — it’s almost independent of content.)

So there’s plenty of evidence that using language like this leads to electoral success but, just as for goaltenders, no candidate can bring himself or herself to use it, because they’d feel so silly if it didn’t work and they lost.

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.

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.