Debate 2: Obama vs McCain

October 7, 2008

Personality and language are consistent across time and context.  The ways that Obama and McCain used language in the second debate were remarkably similar to the ways they used language in the first debate.  The bottom line continues to be that McCain is more socially connected, impulsive, and emotionally honest whereas Obama comes across as smarter, more cognitively complex, and more emotionally calm and detached.

Using the LIWC computer program, the numbers that came up are:

Category   Examples   Obama       McCain Interpretation
Word count   7111 6520  * Obama talks more
Words per sentence   17.78 14.78  * Obama longer sentences
Big words (over 6 letters)   17.17 17.88    
Personal pronouns   9.60 11.15  * McCain more personal in general
   1st person singular I, me, my 2.03 3.24   ** McCain more personal
   1st person plural We, our 4.11 4.02    
   2nd person You, yours 1.95 1.83    
   3rd person singular He, she, her 0.56 0.77    
   3rd person plural They, them 0.96 1.30    
Indefinite pronouns It, those 7.88 6.72 * Obama more vague
Articles A, the 6.17 5.98    
Verbs Walk, went 17.45 17.07    
Auxiliary verbs Is, have 11.08 10.66    
   Past tense Was, gave 3.29 2.75    
   Present tense Am, is 12.36 11.89    
   Future tense will 0.84 1.50  * McCain more future oriented
Common adverbs Very, really 4.67 3.63  * Obama more “flowery”
Prepositions To, for, of 13.80 13.28    
Conjunctions And, or, whereas 7.21 7.56    
Negations No, not, never 1.74 1.35  * Obama censoring himself; McCain more impulsive
Quantifiers Much, few 2.59 2.78    
Numbers Six, 12 1.95 1.23    
Social references Friend, we, talk 11.18 11.78    
Overall emotion words Happy, hurt, kill 5.20 6.33 * McCain more more emotional
  Positive emotions Happy, nice 3.78 4.49 * McCain more positive
  Negative emotions Sad, nasty, bad 1.48 1.99 * McCain more negative
      Anxiety, fear Worry, scared 0.21 0.31    
      Anger Angry, hate 0.53 0.84    
      Sadness Depressed, cry 0.17 0.18    
Cognitive mechanisms Think, should 18.39 19.49 * McCain more social thinking
   Insight Realize, know 2.01 2.27    
   Causal Because, reason 2.48 1.67  * Obama more causal reasoning
   DIscrepancy Would,could 1.73 1.47    
   Tentative Maybe, perhaps 2.21 2.12    
   Certainty Absolute, certainly 1.43 1.66    
   Inhibition Blocked, stop 0.75 0.94    
   Inclusive words With, and 6.37 7.81 ** McCain over inclusive
   Exclusive words Except, but 2.88 2.29  * Obama more cognitively complex
Relativity Times, going, over 13.02 12.01 *  
   Motion Went, fly 2.52 2.10    
   Space Area, under 6.09 5.92    
   Time Hour, clock 4.15 3.96    
Content Categories          
Work Job, paycheck 3.68 3.44    
Achievement Try, succeed 2.94 2.79    
Leisure Games, tv 0.38 0.25    
Home Garage, yard 0.32 0.48    
Money Cash, debt 2.66 2.15    
Religion God, church 0.11 0.05    
Death Dead, cemetery 0.18 0.18    

The numbers refer to the percentage of total words.  So, for example, 3.24% of all of McCain’s words were 1st person singular pronouns.  These numbers were generated by the LIWC text analysis program (see


8 Responses to “Debate 2: Obama vs McCain”

  1. Yitai Says:

    Past study indicated the effect of picturing vote from third-person perspective cause people to be more likely to vote in the presidential election (Libby, Shaeffer, Eibach, & Slemmer, 2007). If this linguistic style can explicitly or implicitly manipulate the voters’ perspective, could it be possible to alter voter’s preference or behavior?

    Advertisers take product placement or embedded marketing to promote their commercial products. Could we use “perspective placement” to mentally brand an election image through language?

  2. I would speculate that one reason McCain ranks so high in the use of the first person singular is that it includes “my” and he says “my friends” or “my friend” all the time. That phrase makes me cringe; over the course of a debate or interview it begins to sound condescending. It’s been bothering me since the debates — the only time I’ve listened to McCain much — and I found it alienating. Of course, I was already an Obama supporter and that must be factored into my reaction. But I wonder how it plays with real independents.

  3. heather Says:

    I agree with Nancy, regarding McCain’s use of “my friend(s)”, which is an insincere bit of political style, and an expression of personal dominance.

    If you look at the personal pronouns breakdown…

    — Obama is higher scored in the inclusive “We, us” and the more altruistic “you, yours” subcatagories.

    — McCain is higher in “I, me, my” simply because of his cynical overuse of “my friend(s)”, and in “he, she” and “they, them” because he spent a lot of effort blaming the opposite party and its candidates for things his own party was responsible for, as well as trying to make a few out-and-out lies fly.

    The analysis shows some pretty interesting reasons why I have come to trust Obama — for being less impulsive and more thoughtful, for nonetheless being more action-oriented (higher counts in relativity, motion, space, and time), for thinking more deeply about things, for being inclusive, for being nicer, more trustworthy, less fearful, more aware of how others feel and think, and what they want, and more honestly willing to try to find solutions for our national problems.

  4. Libby Says:

    What does “social thinking” mean in linguistic analysis? I’m studying distributed teamwork and have noticed that teams where people talk about their concern for one anothers’ goals may be more successful than teams who do not display this kind of social orientation. I’m wondering how “social thinking” as it’s used here and in the VP debate analysis relates to what I’m seeing and what words fall under “cognitive mechanisms”. I tried searching, but all those words are common enough that I get more results than I can reasonably parse. Any help unpacking these terms or pointers to sites or articles that do would be welcome. Thanks!

  5. […] In this post, Pennebaker actually counts how often the candidates use various categories of words. […]

  6. […] here’s the guy’s blog – full of very interesting findings and discussions! If everyday language use is something […]

  7. […] one. Anyway, pretty interesting stuff—check New York Times coverage for specifics. And check his blog for analysis devoted to the presidential […]

  8. Hans Says:

    Great article!

    Recently there was an article in the same newspaper I got your URL from – NRC here in The Netherlands – stating that people who communicate tend to feel better. The article suggested that the brain while thinking faster when communicating releases endorphins.
    Could it be that communicating is a genetic hardcoded survival trait? It sure seems that way.
    Before you say “Doh..”, I’m no scientist, just an interested reader 🙂

    Excuse me for my bad English, ir is not my native language.


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