The Final Obama-Romney Debate

October 22, 2012

by James W. Pennebaker and Cindy K. Chung

Pundits are reporting that the third debate on foreign policy was a toss-up, perhaps with a very slight edge in Obama’s favor.  The stubbornly objective computerized text analysis program, LIWC, refused to name a winner.  But in counting different types of words by Obama and Romney, LIWC revealed some word patterns that tell us a little more about the two candidates.

The candidates as communicators: businessman versus professor.  Romney and Obama break down ideas and express them in very different ways.  They simply think differently.

Across the debates, Romney uses shorter words and shorter sentences.  He tends to be more concrete, breaking problems into more precise categories.  Compared to Obama, he uses a high rate of articles (a, an, the) which reflects his reference to concrete nouns.  These nouns are well organized; by his high use of prepositions and specific references to spatial words (above, around, below, outside), Romney provides a roadmap of his thoughts.

Obama tends to be a more theoretical communicator.  His sentences are much longer, his words bigger, and he is much less personal.  Unlike Romney, Obama often sets up a context for his thoughts. Look at the way he often starts a response to a question: “Well, my first job as commander in chief, Bob, is to keep the American people safe. “; “You’ve got to be clear, both to our allies and our enemies, about where you stand and what you mean.“; “When I came into office, we were still bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan had been drifting for a decade.

Compare those first sentences to some of Romney’s:  “Well, my strategy is pretty straightforward, which is to go after the bad guys…“; “I don’t want to have our military involved in Syria. I don’t think there is a necessity to put our military in Syria at this stage.”  “Well I believe we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world.

Obama thinks about a problem within a broader context;  Romney tends to answer questions directly and then brings up contextual matters after the fact.  These two types of thinking are likely to lead to very different strategies in decision making.  A contextual thinker will likely spend more time looking at a problem from multiple perspectives.  A more categorical thinker will likely have a more set world view and simply make decisions from pre-existing values or beliefs.

Ultimately, the two candidates are revealing their backgrounds. Romney is a businessman with a clear sense of economic realities, and a bottom line.  Obama is, at heart, an academic — a world where there are multiple ways to get at truth, and so competing views must be acknowledged.

Candidates as people: social relationships versus achievement.  Despite the nastiness of the 2012 presidential election, both candidates have come across as honest, decent people.  They both appear to have warm and stable families.  One thing that a text analysis method can help uncover are some of the basic values that are central to candidates.  Across the debates, the two men have made references to money, religion, death, and family at similar rates.  Two language dimensions that have emerged are references to other people and references to achievement and work.

One dimension of the LIWC program counts references to anything social — people, conversations, friendship, or anything that suggests an interest in or awareness of other people. Within each of the three debates, Obama has consistently used social words about 10% more frequently than Romney.  In his mind, the current economic difficulties are a problem because they hurt people.

Romney, on the other hand, has consistently used words that suggest achievement (e.g., earn, success, win).  Not surprisingly, Romney has also made greater references to the related dimension of work.  Work words include a variety of more economically-relevant words such as job, paycheck, and company.  Whereas Obama views economic difficulties as people-problems, Romney frames the recession as something that undermines achievement, jobs, and progress.

Obviously, a recession is bad for companies and for people.  But the framing of the problem reveals differences in core values about people and human nature.  Ultimately, it likely drives what each believes to be the most effective solution.

The debate language of Obama and Romney.  It should be noted that debates are a very peculiar interaction in which to study language use and personality.  Although many labs and companies have examined the men’s language use, body language, and voice characteristics, we are most impressed by how similar the two really are.  They are both smart, eloquent, formal, and trustworthy.

The analysis of pronouns and other function words is helpful in revealing how people are speaking or thinking. LIWC can also give insight into personalities and even central values.  The degree to which Americans agree with what the candidates are saying remains to be determined in the upcoming elections.

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