The first Romney – Obama Debate: Off to the races

October 3, 2012

by James W. Pennebaker and Cindy K. Chung

It was the beginning of the World Series for word counters.  After a four year break, the WordWatchers team came out of hibernation to analyze the first presidential debate of the 2012 election.  Using LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, LIWC) and other text analysis tools, we analyzed the ways that Romney, Obama, and the moderator Jim Lehrer used words.

As a brief refresher, much of our research focuses on the ways people use function words, such as pronouns (I, you, she), articles (a, an, the), prepositions (to, of), auxiliary verbs (am, was), and a handful of other word categories that most people overlook. Function words are the most forgettable words in our vocabulary. Nevertheless, they usually account for over 55% of the words we read, say, and hear.  Their magic is that they often reveal honesty, emotional state, status, and the quality of social relationships.  Function words, then, are the hidden words that tell us a great deal about people.  And that would include the presidential contenders.

Envelope Please

The analysis of the language of the participants in the October 3rd debate yielded some interesting if not surprising results.  Tonight, we have four awards to present.  All are based on scientifically validated research methods.  Drum roll please.

Mr. Authenticity:  Mitt Romney

This is a bit of a surprise.  Linguistic authenticity is calculated based on the rates that people are self-referential (use of the word “I”) plus markers of cognitive complexity (exclusive words such as without, but exclude), while at the same time avoiding negative emotion words.  Overall, Romney rated a 4.35 to Obama’s 3.46.  Authenticity is something that Romney has been criticized for in the past but tonight he connected.

Mr. Optimism and Warmth: Barack Obama

Across previous analyses, Obama has consistently come across as emotionally distant.  He rarely uses I-words and his rates of both positive and negative emotion word use is low.  Tonight’s debate was a subtle departure from his usual emotional tone in that he used slightly more positive emotion words than Romney (3.6 versus 3.0).  In reality, the battle between Obama and Romney for the Mr. Optimism and Warmth title is a fairly sad race.  Although Obama won, his competition barely made it to the plate (warmth score for Obama was 2.5 and Romney’s was 1.1).

The Evasiveness Award: A dead tie

Much of our research focuses on language style matching, or LSM.  LSM can be measured by calculating the similarity of function word use of two people — in their speeches, letters, or emails.  Using an algorithm we have written (click here for a demonstration), we can determine the degree two people are directly communicating with each other.  For the debate, we wanted to know the degree to which each of the candidates matched the language style of the moderator, Jim Lehrer.  In theory, the more similar they used language in response to his questions, the more they should have been answering his questions.  The less they matched Lehrer’s language, the more evasive they were likely to be.  The numbers were compelling.  Romney matched Lehrer at 0.86 compared to Obama’s match of 0.87.  Both of these numbers are relatively low for natural conversations.  Interestingly, Romney and Obama’s LSM scores for each other was 0.93. In other words, they were paying attention to each other and not the question asker.

Stay tuned to this website for the remainder of the debates.  Some more analyses follow.


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