Candidates’ Language in Speeches and Interviews: Summary Comparisons

October 6, 2008

by Molly Ireland

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been analyzing the way the candidates speak in interviews and speeches using our text analysis program, LIWC. Now that the individual analyses are finished, here’s a summary of how the candidates differ from their running mates and the opposing team.

Averaged across interviews and speeches, McCain and Palin are less linguistically in sync than Obama and Biden, with 19 significant differences between the Republicans and 13 differences between the Democrats. As McCain pointed out, “What do you expect of two mavericks, to agree on everything? Eh?”

Looking at the candidates’ language from a broader perspective, there are 16 major differences between the Democrats and Republicans. In the table below you can see how the two tickets differ (word categories in each column were used significantly more by those candidates):


Democrats: concrete and restrained

articles (a, and, the)
negations (never, no)
exclusive (without, except)
anxiety and anger (worry, fight)
tentative (probably, careful)
sight and hearing (look, listen)
motion verbs (run, carry)
space (around, eastern)
time (age, beginning)
death (casualty, grieve)

Republicans: cheerfully unrestrained, future-focused

first person singular (I, me, my)
future (will, must)
inclusive (all, both)
conjunctions (and, but, also)
affect (sad, joyful)
positive emotions (enjoy, happy)

“I” and “we.” All four nominees come across as high status and somewhat distant, using “I” at relatively low rates (about 3%) and “we” at relatively high rates (also about 3%). The Republicans appear more personable than the Democrats, using more I-words on average. In terms of “I” use in interviews and speeches, Biden is the least approachable and McCain is the most. In terms of “we” use, Palin sounds more like Joe Six-Pack than the other candidates in speeches. She comes across as colder (more “we”) than the others in interviews, however. Obama, Biden, and McCain all use “we” at about the same rate.

Conjunctions and negations. Negations and conjunction are both markers of self-restraint: negations indicate self-control and inhibition, and a high number of conjunctions is a hallmark of rambling. Palin appears to be the least restrained of the four candidates, linguistically and otherwise. She uses far more conjunctions and far fewer negations than the others, particularly in interviews. Biden, on the other hand, clearly likes to talk, but his language actually shows the most restraint: he uses the fewest conjunctions and the most negations. He says a lot, but he structures his sentences normally and is relatively self-controlled.

Cognitive mechanisms. Palin’s thought processes seem to be the least complicated of the four: she uses fewer words that refer to cognitive processes (insight, cause and effect relationships, inclusion, exclusion, and so on) than the other nominees. The only cognitive words she uses frequently are inclusive words (plus, and, with), which, like conjunctions, can indicate rambling. She uses particularly few inhibition and exclusive words. Using few exclusive words sometimes indicates dishonesty. Obama uses the most exclusive words of the four nominees, although the differences between Obama, Biden, and McCain are subtle.

Emotions. The Republican ticket is generally sunnier than the Democratic team (more positive emotion words, fewer mentions of negative emotions). McCain uses the most positive emotion words (happy, excited) of the four nominees. He also talks about sadness the most, however. Palin is the most unilaterally cheerful candidate: she talks about positive emotions more than both Democrats and refers to anxiety, anger, and sadness less than McCain, Obama, and Biden. Biden’s language is somewhat gloomy: he talks about positive emotions the least and negative emotions the most. Obama talks the most about anxiety, Biden language is the angriest.

Achievement. McCain appears to be more ambitious and focused on success than either Palin or his opponents. He uses words that refer to need for achievement (failure, win, success) much more than the others. In speeches, 4% of his words have to do with need for achievement. That’s very high. (Compare with Eliot Spitzer’s achievement language in his resignation speech.) Obama and Palin refer to achievement least often, and Biden is somewhere in the middle. All candidates used more achievement words in speeches. Similarly, McCain talks about money the most, nearly three times as much as Biden and Palin, while Obama talks about money a moderate amount.

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One Response to “Candidates’ Language in Speeches and Interviews: Summary Comparisons”

  1. mercerd Says:

    interesting material, where such topics do you find? I will often go


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