Posts Tagged 'spin'

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.

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.

Republican presidential candidates — first analysis of persona deception

Regular readers of this blog will know that I carried out extensive analysis of the speeches of the contenders in the 2008 US presidential election cycle (see earlier postings). I’m now beginning similar analysis for the 2012 cycle, concentrating on the Republican contenders for now.

You will recall that Pennebaker’s deception model enables a set of documents to be ranked in order of their deceptiveness, detected via changes in the frequency of occurrence of 86 words in four categories: first-person singular pronouns, exclusive words, negative-emotion words, and action verbs. Words in the first two categories decrease in the presence of deception, while those in the last two categories increase. The model only allows for ranking, rather than true/false determination, because “increase” and “decrease” are always relative to some norm for the set of documents being considered.

How does this apply to politics? First of all, the point isn’t to detect when a politician is lying (Cynical joke: Q: How do you tell when a politician is lying? A: His lips are moving). Politicians tell factual lies, but this seems to have no impact on how voters perceive them, perhaps because we’re come to expect it. Rather, the kind of deception that is interesting is the kind where a politician is trying to present him/herself as a much better person (smarter, wiser, more competent) than they really are. This is what politicians do all the time.

Why should we care? There are two reasons. The first is that it works — typically the politician who is able to deliver the highest level of what we call “persona deception” gets elected. Voters have to decide on the basis of something, and this kind of presentation as a great individual seems to play more of a role than, say, actual plans for action.

Second, though, watching the changes in the levels of persona deception gives us a window into how each candidate (and campaign) is perceiving themselves (and, it turns out, their rivals) from day to day. Constructing and maintaining an artificial persona is difficult and expensive. Levels of persona deception tend to drop sharply when a candidate becomes confident that they’re doing well; and when some issue surfaces about which they don’t really have a persona opinion because, apparently, it takes time to construct the new piece.

So, with that preliminary, on to some results.

The figure shows the speeches in a space where speeches with greater person deception (spin) are further to the right, and those with less persona deception are further to the left. Ron Paul shows the lowest level of persona deception which is not surprising — nobody has ever accused him of trying to be what he is not. In contrast, Romney shows the highest level of persona deception — again not surprising as he has had to try hardest to make himself appealing to voters. Note that this also predicts that he will do well. Both Gingrich and Santorum occupy the middle ground; both are running on a very overt track record and are not trying as hard to make themselves seem different from who they are. Indeed, candidates with a strong history tend to have lower levels of persona deception simply because it’s very difficult to construct a new, more attractive persona when you already have a strong one. (The two points vertically separated from the rest are the result of a sudden burst of using “I’d” in these two speeches.)

The following figures break out the temporal patterns for the four candidates:

What’s striking about Romney is how much the level of persona deception changes from speech to speech. In the last election cycle, this wasn’t associated with audience type or recent success but seemed to be much more internally driven. This zig-zag pattern is much more the norm than a constant level of persona deception — some mystery remains.

Language in Presidential Elections — 2012 Season Opener

Readers of this blog will know that we spent a lot of time analyzing the speeches of the U.S. presidential candidates in the 2008 election. Our primary interest was in the use of the deception model, a linguistic/textual model of how freeform language changes when the speaker/writer is being deceptive.

In the political arena, factual deception, saying things that just ain’t so, plays very little role, perhaps because voters have very low expectations of politicians in this area. What we call persona deception, presenting oneself as a better,wiser,  more powerful, more able, more knowledgeable person than one really is is the heart of successful campaigning. It turns out that the deception model captures deception across the whole range from factual to persona deception, so it gives us a lens to look at candidates and campaigns. What’s more, because language generation is almost entirely subconscious, this lens is hard to fool.

The most important skill candidates and their campaigns have is the ability to reach out to potential voters to convince them that they are better than the other possibilities. The language that they use is an important channel, especially in settings where everyone is conservatively dressed, and standing behind a podium that conceals most of their body language, as the Republican presidential field was in Iowa yesterday.

Strong candidates understand, at least instinctively, that they are not making arguments to convince voters, but presenting themselves as more compelling human beings. Our analysis of the speeches of candidates in the 2008 U.S. presidential election showed that candidates use three different kinds of speeches: blue skies speeches that promise generically good things and could be delivered interchangeably by any candidate – they are aimed at a wide audience; track record speeches that use past achievements to imply special qualifications for future achievements – they are aimed at swing voters; and manifesto speeches that describe a candidate’s personal qualities directly – they are aimed at a candidate’s base and reinforce common identity. But in all three cases, it’s not the content of the speech that matters, but what it implies about the speaker.

Our analysis in the last election cycle showed that Obama was by far the best as presenting himself as a wonderful person, and many voters, and certainly many in the media, projected onto the persona  positive qualities that were perhaps not there. Interestingly, yesterday was the first time I have seen open Democratic buyers remorse about electing Obama, something I predicted would happen from the analysis we did.

The Republican candidates’ debate in Ames showed what a shaky grasp many of the candidates have on how to be a convincing candidate. Of course, this venue was a difficult one. Its overt purpose was for candidates to explain themselves to the local Republican base ahead of the Ames Straw Poll,which would have required largely manifesto content; but national television coverage made it an unmissable opportunity to reach out to a wider, but much more diverse audience, suggesting track record content. Blue skies content is always dangerous in the early stages of a campaign because grand but potentially unwise statements can come back to haunt a candidate.

Manifesto content was indeed popular – for example, we learned how many children almost every candidate has – typical content aimed at the base (“I’m a parent just like you”). Several candidates also tried for track record content, but got it quite wrong. The purpose of a track record speech is not for candidates to read their resumes to the audience; it’s to make the argument “I was able to do A, so you can trust me to be able to do similar-but-larger B” and this second part was notably absent.

Voters also want candidates to be sincere — recall the famous quotation “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made” (Jean Girardoux). This is not just a cute quotation; this is what good politicians are able to do. In Iowa, this was another area where almost everyone stumbled. It was clear that most of the candidates had not only prepared talking point responses to probable questions, but has also rehearsed actual answers. Delivering from a prepared and memorized script and seeming sincere is a difficult business, and actors who can do it reliably command high rewards.  Most of the candidates failed at seeming sincere. Several managed the worst of both worlds by trying to combine their prepared scripts with some ad libbing and came across as quite incoherent. One of the reasons for Gingrich’s strong showing is that he stayed away from scripts and delivered his answers as if he had just thought of them. Huntsman and Romney, in contrast, were especially wooden.

When humans listen to humans, the content matters. But when character is the issue, other aspects of language matter more. Much language generation is subconscious, and therefore beyond a candidate’s control. This is good for voters because it means we can sometimes see through to the real person no matter how sophisticated their speech writers and spin doctors.

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.