The 2010 UK Election: The second debate

April 23, 2010

Is David Cameron this week’s new heartthrob?

By James W. Pennebaker and Raj Persaud

In the first UK Prime Minister debate on 15 April, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg wowed the country with his warmth, humility, and charm.  Using the LIWC computerized text analysis program, Clegg’s language during the debate was found to be distinctively personal, positive and honest compared to Gordon Brown’s academic distance.  David Cameron’s linguistic style was the least distinctive.

Before the last televised debate, Cameron was widely perceived as the heir apparent to the throne.  It is likely that his advisors were warning him that his primary task was to not slip up.  He certainly succeeded.  But given the surge in Liberal Democrat support following Nick Clegg’s unexpected performance last week, the demands on Cameron may have altered. Now, with the crown apparently slipping from his grasp (polling showed Liberal Democrats had pushed the Conservatives into second place), a change in approach may have been forced upon Cameron.

Oh what a difference a week makes in politics… and in linguistic analysis.

Text analyses of the 22 April debate in Bristol suggest a flipping of linguistic roles between Cameron and Clegg.  David Cameron, by using the most I-words, is now giving the impression of being more personal than his two competitors.  He also practically bubbled with upbeat language – the role that Nick Clegg grabbed last week. He has also adopted Clegg’s strategy of using high rates of present tense verbs and not referring much to the past.

In last week’s debate, Nick Clegg used more personal language (more I-words for example), more positive emotion words, and tended to talk in the present tense at the highest rates.  These are strong indicators of psychological immediacy, in other words, he was speaking more in the here-and-now.   These same language markers have also been found to correlate with truthful – as opposed to deceptive – language.

This week, Cameron has passed Clegg in the personal-immediate-honest department.

Last week Cameron scored highest on negative emotion and Clegg the lowest; this week Cameron was lowest on negative emotion. The reason he has been able to pull off this switch is not just that he himself has dropped his use of negative emotion (last week negative emotion words were 1.85% of his total output compared to 1.52% this week), but also Clegg allowed his use of negative emotion to climb (last week it was 1.35% of his total output compared with 1.61% now).

Cameron didn’t just adjust his game in what would appear to be an adept grasp of where he went wrong last time. Clegg doesn’t appear to have either understood where he went right, or if he did, he has for some reason struggled to keep his eye on the linguistic ball, ensuring he maintained the gap between himself and the others verbally and emotionally.

This could be worrying to Liberal Democrat strategists, as it may suggest that their candidate is going to struggle to maintain the distinctive persona over the next few weeks.

Much of the voter appeal of candidates is in how they communicate rather than just what they communicate.  This was particularly apparent in last week’s remarkable surge in Clegg’s popularity.  From relative obscurity, Clegg was a refreshing new face who spoke in what appeared to be a direct, honest, and upbeat way.  We may not know what he said but he said it so well.

The fluidity of the two challengers is striking in comparison with rock steady Brown.  The prime minister continues to be the least personal of the three in his use of pronouns and I-words.  He displays a thinking style that reflects a natural strategy of organizing complex ideas into highly specific concrete categories more than his opponents (as can be seen with his use of articles and prepositions).  Brown’s way of speaking is predictable, and we may not be able to expect much alteration from him. This could be worrying to Labour strategists who, if Labour continues to bump along at the nadir of third place in many opinion polls, might be hoping for a transformational response from Brown.

It also might suggest that the outcome of this election is going to turn most on how Cameron and Clegg continue to evolve.

Ominously for the Liberal Democrats given what a euphoric week they have just had, Cameron seems to have sidled his way into Nick Clegg’s verbal territory. This could explain the immediate reaction opinion polls which generally have not put Nick Clegg as the overwhelming winner, compared to last time, and instead have either put Cameron marginally ahead, but more generally have put all three leaders at much more level pegging compared to last week.

From a language perspective, just as Cameron has shown a more personable side, the linguistic analysis suggests that Nick Clegg appears to be taking himself a bit more seriously.  This week, he is meaningfully lower than Cameron in personal pronouns in general and I-words in particular.  He also seems to be censoring his own thoughts and feelings compared to last week with a large jump in his use of negations (words such as no, not, never).

As the debates continue it’s not only the differences between the candidates that lends itself to linguistic and psychological analysis, but also how they adapt to polling reaction and each other. It’s not just where you are that counts in a political campaign, but also your ability to adapt and change as circumstances evolve.

Bottom line: Gordon Brown continues to be Gordon Brown.  Both David Cameron’s and Nick Clegg’s voices are evolving and they may be becoming key influences on each other, with Cameron so far learning the right lessons, while Clegg has at least temporarily apparently lost his grip on the distinctive strategy that previously put him ahead.

Examples Brown Cameron Clegg
Word count 5863 5846 5963
Big words 17.77 16.34 17.02
Personal pronouns 9.89 10.74 9.22
I-words I, me, my 2.10 3.03 2.52
We-words We, us 4.32 4.64 3.40
Articles A, an, the 7.66 6.79 6.78
Verbs Is, ran 18.44 19.36 17.34
Past tense Was, ran 2.95 2.50 2.80
Present tense Am, feel 12.76 13.84 12.66
Future tense Will, shall 1.42 F 0.89
Adverbs Very, so 3.58 5.25 5.32
Prepositions On, to 15.03 13.07 13.85
Conjunctions And, but 6.28 5.44 5.03
Negations No, not, never 1.38 1.54 2.21
Positive Emotions Love, nice 2.81 3.71 3.00
Negative emotions Cry, hate 1.84 1.52 1.61
Anxiety worry 0.48 0.22 0.25
Anger kill 0.56 0.58 0.42
Sadness think 0.19 0.14 0.17
Cognitive words Realize 18.73 22.02 18.87
Insight Cause 2.06 2.53 2.53
Cause Would. should 2.52 2.33 2.30
Discrep Love, nice 2.66 3.54 2.80

To learn more about the text analysis work, go to an click on the “Explorations into Language” link.

Dr. Raj Persaud,  FRCPsych MSc MPhil , is a consultant psychiatrist and Visiting Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry in London.

A companion piece to this blog can be seen at the New Scientist website:


One Response to “The 2010 UK Election: The second debate”

  1. martin g Says:

    Anyone remaining unconvinced about the authenticity and the validity of the ‘debates’ ( and the subsequent analysis of the results based on them ) might like to check this out in today’s Guardian . . .

    oh, and there’s this too . . .

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