Smart Language is not Smart Politics: A Computational Analysis of the 2012 Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates

November 1, 2012

By Nia Dowell, John Myers, and Arthur Graesser, Department of Psychology and the Institute for Intelligent Systems, University of Memphis

It’s early November in a presidential election year, and every time candidates open their mouths, they are trying to persuade potential voters. Clearly, language is a powerful tool used by politicians to deliver persuasive messages and gain support.

With this in mind, we examined the extent to which the presidential and vice presidential candidates utilized the theoretically grounded strategies of persuasion put forth by Petty & Cacioppo (1984). Their research discriminates between two distinct paths to persuasion, namely the central route and the peripheral route.

The central route is characterized by coherent, logical, expository language, resulting in a formal complicated message. The upside of this central route is that ­once you are persuaded, you usually stay persuaded. That is, the central route results in a rather stable opinion and attitude change. In the political context, however, the downside of the central route is that the majority of people in the general public audience may not be motivated or educated enough to digest a message that might appear a little dry. From a political candidate’s point of view, this obviously has many detrimental consequences, maybe millions if you consider the number of “tuned out” Americans out there.

The peripheral route offers more advantages to political candidates striving to gain the support and retain the attention of the masses. The peripheral route is characterized by entertaining, narrative discourse that is more informal and easier to comprehend. As you might have guessed, successful persuasion via the peripheral route is quite temporary and unstable. However, considering that the election is less than one week away, this may be all the candidates really need.

So, now you no doubt want to know, who took what route in the recent 2012 election debates: The Democrats or Republicans?

Using a computational linguistics facility, Coh-Metrix (Graesser, McNamara, & Kulikowich, 2011), we assessed the extent to which the presidential and vice presidential candidates pursued the central and peripheral routes to persuasion.

Coh-Metrix is an automated linguistic analysis tool that analyzes text by measures of genre, cohesion, syntax, words, and other characteristics of language and discourse. Coh-Metrix is sensitive to a wide range of linguistic/discourse features that reflect multiple levels of complexity. Five orthogonal Coh-Metrix dimensions of text characteristics were identified as accounting for most of the variability in text complexity among 37,521 texts in a principal components analysis:

  1. Narrativity. The extent to which a text features story-like elements, such as characters and events, which are closely affiliated with everyday oral conversation.
  2. Deep cohesion. The extent to which the ideas in a text are connected with causal, intentional, or temporal connectives at a deeper level of semantic understanding.
  3. Referential cohesion. The extent to which discourse contains explicit words and ideas that overlap across sentences and the entire text.
  4. Syntactic ease. Sentences with fewer words and simple, less embedded syntactic structures are easier to process and understand.
  5. Word concreteness. The extent to which a text features concrete words that tend to evoke mental images and are more meaningful to the reader than abstract words.

Using these measures we were able to compute a composite measure of formality.  Formal text is informational (rather than narrative) with high cohesion, complex syntax, and abstract words.  Informal text is more narrative, with lower cohesion, simple syntax, and concrete words.

Our analysis of the presidential and vice presidential debates revealed some interesting, and potentially alarming results for the future of the democratic candidates (Obama and Biden) with regard to their persuasive impact.

Presidential Debates

Debate I: For the first presidential debate, we observe a clear difference in language formality. This difference in formality may tip the ballot in favor of Romney, with regard to persuasion. Romney came out swinging, using the language of the “people” and capitalizing on the peripheral route to persuasion. Obama had more complex syntax and deeper cohesion, but those features of language are not aligned with the peripheral route to persuasion.

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Debate II: For the second presidential debate, we see a slight increase in formality for Romney compared with the first debate, but we still observe this same pattern in language formality between the candidates.

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Debate III: So who’s advising the president?! In the third debate, we watched him take more than a serving of the formal discourse pie and continue to use complex and stilted language.  Did he lose the attention of the masses this time around?

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Vice Presidential Debate

Similarly, we witness a formal and complicated message for the democratic vice president, Biden, as he follows suite with his running partner by using the central route to persuasion. Ryan, on the other hand, is keeping it more informal and simpler, steadily keeping the attention of the masses via the peripheral route to persuasion.

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Bottom Line

The Democrats may have more formal language and appeal to the smart voters who are attracted to the central route to persuasion.  However, the peripheral route to persuasion is more effective for most voters.  On November 6 we shall see which route reigns supreme.

References

Graesser, A.C., McNamara, D.S., & Kulikowich, J. (2011).  Coh-Metrix: Providing multilevel analyses of text characteristics.  Educational Researcher, 40, 223-234.

Petty, R., & Cacioppo, J. (1984). The effects of involvement on responses to argument quantity over quality: Central and peripheral routes to persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 69-81.

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