Convention Language: Democrats and Republicans
September 8, 2008
Taken together, the speeches at the two conventions provide a relatively coherent picture of the images the two parties are trying to convey. It’s likely that most of the speeches were written by people other than the presenters. And, even if the presenters had a strong hand in their speech, they were undoubtedly heavily vetted by party insiders.
Using our computer text analysis program LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, see www.liwc.net), we compared the function words of 15 Democratic and 14 Republican speeches that took place during prime time. In many ways, the language was fairly similar. However, a couple of striking differences emerged:
Social and Emotional Connections. Republicans came across as more socially and emotionally connected to their audience than the Democrats. There was a trend for Republicans to use 1st person singular, 2nd person, and 3rd person pronouns more than Democrats. More striking was the consistently higher use of 1st person plural (we, us, our) among the Democrats. As a general rule, politicians who use “we” at high rates are using the Royal We which signals a psychological distancing between speakers and audience. This follows the foolish advice that Democratic consultants have been giving their candidates since Kerry and Gore. They falsely assume that the use of “we” conveys a sense of warmth and closeness. Both Gore and Kerry used “we” at far higher rates than Bush. Bush used “I” at much higher rates than virtually all of his competitors. Although Obama is using “we” at the same rate as McCain, McCain is using “I” much more frequently (in their acceptance speeches, 5.9% of McCain’s words and 2.5% of Obama’s words were “I”).
Past and Future, Home and God, Hearing and Feeling. Whereas Republicans were more likely to use past tense verbs (3.0 vs 2.3 percent), there was a trend for Democrats to refer more to the future (1.3 vs 1.0 percent). While Democrats talked more about home (.82 vs .47 percent), Republicans referred to God and religion (.57 vs .33 percent). Finally, Republicans used “hearing” words (I hear what you say), Democrats used more feeling words (I feel what you say).
Obama and Palin, McCain and Biden. My friend Leland Beatty, a Democratic consultant, LIWCed the language of the President and VP acceptance speeches. He discovered that Obama and Palin were very similar in their language whereas McCain and Biden were more similar to each other than to their respective running mates. Leland pointed out that this seems to reflect an age difference among the candidates rather than a party difference.
There IS a huge age difference among the candidates in terms of the ways they use words. But the differences are quite different from what we would expect. The youngsters, Obama and Palin, used words like old people. They overused 1st person plural, big words, low emotion word rates, high levels of articles. McCain and Biden, however, talk like teenagers. Lots of 1st person singular, high rates of emotions, high use of verbs, especially auxiliary verbs.
This is perhaps what tightly scripted conventions are all about. The men talk like women and the women talk like men. The young sound old and the old sound young.
–James W. Pennebaker