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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It’s official.  Biden and Palin speak differently — but not in the ways many people think.  Biden uses language in a way that suggests he is more personal, honest (higher rates of I), and socially engaged (third person pronouns) whereas Palin is surprisingly emotionally distant ( more “we” words).  Palin uses more positive emotion words more than Biden but doesn’t differ from him in the use of negative emotions. 

The most striking differences appeared for a variety of cognitive dimensions.  As a thinker, Biden proved to be more specific and concrete (higher use of articles and nouns), concerned with specific numbers, and showed signs of being more cognitively complex in talking about issues (exclusive words). Palin, on the other hand, proved to be someone who thinks more about the perspectives of others — especially her audience.  Through her use of cognitive mechanism words (e.g., words like realize, think, believe), she was subtly acknowledging that there were different answers or approaches to the issues.  She is not the narrow-minded true believer many of her critics were hoping to see.  Not surprisingly, Palin was not as crisp or polished in her thinking and in her answers as Biden.  The best evidence for this was her complicated sentence structure (prepositions) and high rates of conjuctions and inclusive words — general markers of rambling and vagueness.

More to follow.  But in the meantime, here are the numbers:

Category

Examples

Biden

Palin

 

Interpretation

Word count

 

7372

7741

*

Palin talks more

Words per sentence

 

16.13

19.50

**

Palin longer sentences

Big words (over 6 letters)

 

16.05

16.81

 

Palin bigger words

Personal pronouns

 

9.06

8.68

 

 

   1st person singular

I, me, my

3.02

2.31

*

Biden more personal

   1st person plural

We, our

2.18

3.51

**

Palin more formal, distant

   2nd person

You, yours

1.25

1.51

 

Palin more aggressive, pointed

   3rd person singular

He, she, her

1.34

0.89

*

Biden more social

   3rd person plural

They, them

1.26

0.45

*

Biden more social

Indefinite pronouns

It, those

6.12

7.76

**

Palin more vague

Articles

A, the

7.21

5.65

**

Biden more concrete, less abstract

Verbs

Walk, went

16.02

15.22

 

Biden more dynamic

Auxiliary verbs

Is, have

10.46

10.09

 

 

   Past tense

Was, gave

3.89

3.02

 

 

   Present tense

Am, is

9.63

9.97

 

 

   Future tense

will

1.28

0.98

 

 

Common adverbs

Very, really

4.07

6.19

**

Palin more “flowery”

Prepositions

To, for, of

13.51

14.66

*

Palin more detailed

Conjunctions

And, or, whereas

5.64

8.16

**

Palin more extended sentences

Negations

No, not, never

2.20

1.51

*

Biden censoring himself

Quantifiers

Much, few

2.22

2.61

 

 

Numbers

Six, 12

2.43

0.92

**

Biden more specific

Social references

Friend, we, talk

10.66

10.75

 

 

Overall emotion words

Happy, hurt, kill

4.69

5.58

 

 

  Positive emotions

Happy, nice

3.35

4.25

*

Palin more positive

  Negative emotions

Sad, nasty, bad

1.45

1.34

 

 

      Anxiety, fear

Worry, scared

0.12

0.13

 

 

      Anger

Angry, hate

0.64

0.78

 

 

      Sadness

Depressed, cry

0.15

0.14

 

 

Cognitive mechanisms

Think, should

16.26

18.41

**

Palin more social thinking

   Insight

Realize, know

1.55

1.87

 

 

   Causal

Because, reason

2.02

2.07

 

 

   DIscrepancy

Would,could

1.56

1.69

 

 

   Tentative

Maybe, perhaps

1.75

1.38

 

 

   Certainty

Absolute, certainly

1.84

1.49

 

 

   Inhibition

Blocked, stop

0.56

0.44

 

 

   Inclusive words

With, and

5.41

7.67

**

Palin over inclusive

   Exclusive words

Except, but

2.62

2.36

*

Biden more cognitively complex

Relativity

Times, going, over

12.09

12.58

 

 

   Motion

Went, fly

2.16

2.20

 

 

   Space

Area, under

5.83

6.72

 

 

   Time

Hour, clock

3.95

3.46

 

 

Content Categories

 

 

 

 

 

Work

Job, paycheck

3.54

3.95

*

Palin focuses on work and jobs

Achievement

Try, succeed

2.03

2.79

*

Palin higher in achievement motives

Leisure

Games, tv

0.20

0.68

 

 

Home

Garage, yard

0.53

0.37

 

 

Money

Cash, debt

2.18

1.89

 

 

Religion

God, church

0.20

0.09

 

 

Death

Dead, cemetery

0.39

0.25

 

 

The numbers represent the percentage of total words that were spoken by the candidate. So, for example, 2.79% of all the words used by Sarah Palin were associated with achievement (words like try, succeed, win) compared with 2.03% of Biden’s words.  These numbers were generated by the computerized text analysis program LIWC, or Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (www.liwc.net).

James W. Pennebaker

by Molly Ireland

As we’ve done for the other presidential and vice presidential candidates, I used our text analysis program, LIWC (www.liwc.net), to analyze about 20,000 words of Sarah Palin’s language in speeches and interviews. While the other three candidates’ language changed in most categories when they left the stage, Palin remains the same more often than not. It’s tempting to call this another example of Palin’s folksy, frontierswoman honesty, but the evidence suggests that may not always be the case.

Here’s a quick summary of the major differences between Palin’s language in interviews and speeches (words in each column are those that were used significantly more in that context; asterisks denote a nonsignificant but meaningful trend):


Interviews: colder, more restrained
first person plural* (we, our)
indefinite pronouns (that, it)
verbs (ran, worked)
auxiliary verbs (be, am, is)
present tense (running, feel)
negations (not, never)
insight (realize, think)
cause* (consequence, solve)
health (doctor, ill)

Speeches: warmer, more honest

second person singular (you, y’all)
conjunctions (but, or)
friends (pal, buddy)
humans (man, girl)
motion (drive, change)
money (peso, economy)
religion (Bible, amen)
inclusive* (both, with)
exclusive* (except, versus)
feel* (rough, cold)

Exclusive words. People use exclusive words (versus, but, either) to divide the world into clear and distinct categories: right vs. wrong, us but not them, a burger without mustard, and so on. In speeches, Palin uses exclusive words at an extremely low rate, 2.1% — much lower than the average for spoken conversation, 3.3%.

But how exclusive is she when she’s being herself? The other three candidates this year all spoke more like normal people in interviews than in speeches. If Palin’s language follows the same pattern, she will use more exclusive words in interviews. Palin’s political positions (she’s for banning gay marriage and excluding polar bears from the endangered species list) give us even more reason to expect high – or at least normal – levels of exclusiveness in interviews.

That reasonable prediction, it turns out, is wrong. Palin — unlike Obama, Biden, and her running mate — uses slightly fewer exclusive words in interviews than in speeches. The other presidential and vice presidential candidates all use significantly more exclusive words in interviews than in speeches. Most people, in fact, use exclusive words more often in conversation than in formal contexts, like speeches. In general, Palin uses fewer exclusive words than Obama, Biden, and McCain in interviews (2.1% vs. 2.8%). She also uses exclusive words at about half the normal rate (Palin uses 1.9%; 3.3% is average).

What does this mean? It could simply mean that Sarah Palin doesn’t think about the world in terms of divisions and distinct categories. Exclusive words don’t only indicate exclusiveness, however. They also indicate cognitive complexity, and help us estimate the truthfulness of a statement or story. It’s easier to keep your story straight if it’s simple, so people tend to use fewer exclusive words and speak in simple sentences when they lie.

So which is she, deceptive or just not very exclusive? Looking at her debates and interviews, her lack of complexity seems more evasive than non-exclusive. For example, in the following excerpt from an interview with Katie Couric on September 29th, Palin responds to Couric’s uncontroversial question about where she gets her news:

PALIN: I’ve read most of them, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media
COURIC: What, specifically?
PALIN: Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years.
COURIC: Can you name a few?
PALIN: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news. Alaska isn’t a foreign country, where it’s kind of suggested, “Wow, how could you keep in touch with what the rest of Washington, D.C. may be thinking when you live up there in Alaska?” Believe me, Alaska is like a microcosm of America.

In this excerpt and on average across all of her interviews, Palin’s language fits the basic deceptive profile. She doesn’t use a single exclusive word in the response above, and she uses “I” fairly rarely (4%; 6.3% is average), both indicators of dishonesty.

Logic backs up the linguistic evidence. The only reasonable explanation for her response is that Palin did not, for whatever reason, want to reveal her specific news sources. It is almost inconceivable that a vice presidential candidate – with a BA in Journalism, no less – could not recall a single specific news source. Palin’s response clearly show some degree of dishonesty. While evasive non-responses aren’t the same as outright lies, they do fall under the broad umbrella of deception.

First person singular and tentativeness: “I’ll get back to you.” For Palin, the similarities between speeches and interviews are as revealing as the differences. Interviews are usually a chance for politicians to step down from their pedestals and reveal to their constituency that they’re just like them. Obama, McCain, and Biden all take advantage of this opportunity by using first person singular pronouns (I-words like I, me, my, and mine) and tentative words (maybe, guess, careful) more often in interviews than in speeches.

Contrary to what you might expect for a relatively green politician in a series of difficult interviews, Palin used “I” and tentative words rarely in both interviews and speeches. In other words, Palin has been as unblinkingly confident in face-to-face conversations as she has been in speeches written by people who are paid to make Palin appear vice presidential. Using “I” an average amount communicates honesty and makes candidates seem more approachable; higher than average I-word use is associated with negative emotions, and extremely high “I” use is a sign of depression and neuroticism. Palin resists the pressure to become self-focused or tentative even during embarrassing exchanges like the following (first person singular pronouns in bold; there are no tentative words):

GIBSON: But it’s now pretty clearly documented. You supported that bridge before you opposed it. You were wearing a t-shirt in the 2006 campaign, showed your support for the bridge to nowhere.
PALIN: I was wearing a t-shirt with the zip code of the community that was asking for that bridge. Not all the people in that community even were asking for a $400 million or $300 million bridge.

Her low use of I-words is especially striking given that she’s a relatively young woman. Women and younger people tend to use “I” significantly more than men, yet Palin uses fewer I-words in interviews than either Obama or McCain (3.5% vs. 4.5% for Obama and 5.1% for McCain). Unusually low I-word use is usually interpreted as a sign of high status, deception, or both. Very high status people rarely refer to themselves because they’re primarily focused on managing subordinates. Deceptive people avoid using “I” in an attempt to psychologically distance themselves from their lie.

Whether Palin is more deceptive than other candidates this year is anyone’s educated guess. What is clearer is that failing to use “I” more often, especially in interviews, is a missed opportunity. More importantly, it’s an opportunity that Obama and Biden both seized. Using less “I” in interviews has probably isolated her further from supporters who have been disappointed by Palin’s recent interview fumbles. Palin electrified audiences at the Republican National Convention, and her audience identified with her at least in part because she used “I” slightly more often and “we” less often in her speech. In other words, she was more conversational, average, and approachable when she was reading a teleprompter. If she can somehow communicate in interviews the way she has in speeches, she may regain some of her lost ground.

First person plural: “We want to see that drilling.” Strikingly, Palin – unlike Obama, Biden, and McCain – used first person plural (we, our) significantly more in interviews than in speeches. Using “we” more often than “I” tends to put a chilly distance between a speaker and their audience. In speeches the royal “we” is sometimes warranted, but choosing “we” over “I” in less formal interview situations tends to alienate audiences. In her interview with CNBC’s Marie Bartiromo, Palin used we-words a whopping five times as often as she used I-words. In this excerpt from Bartiromo’s August 29th interview with Palin, “we,” the Alaskan people, approve of drilling on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) (first person plural in bold):

No one but Alaskans will care more to make sure that we are preserving that pristine environment that is ANWR … And with Alaskans’ love and care for our environment and our lands and our wildlife, Alaskans are saying, “Yes, because we believe that it can be done safely, prudently, and it had better be done ethically also. Yes, we want to see that drilling.”

Rather than recalling specific people she has personally spoken with, she speaks for the citizens of Alaska in nonspecific blanket statements. Rather than citing evidence, she makes the simple argument that Alaskans wouldn’t support drilling in ANWR if it were unethical. The case is hardly closed, and it’s partly due to her ineffective use of pronouns.

Although Palin’s language changes very little when she transitions from speeches to interviews, she is making some progress. Palin used “we” much more often than “I” (5% vs. 2.8%) in the first of her three interviews with ABC’s Charlie Gibson. Palin was widely criticized for her rambling, scripted responses and inability to answer questions about the Bush Doctrine in the first Gibson interview. In the second and third installments she appeared more comfortable and less speechy. As she seemed to relax into her role she adopted a warmer and more personal speaking style, using “I” about as often as “we.” In her first interview with Gibson the royal “we” made up 5% of Palin’s words. Luckily for the McCain camp, her “we” use dropped to a more human 2.3% in the third Gibson interview and was 2.2% on average in the recent series of Couric interviews. Even with this improvement, in interviews she still uses “we” more than twice as often as average people (2.9%; 1.1% is average).

Summary. Looking at the candidates’ first person pronoun use we can see that Palin, unlike each of the other candidates we’ve analyzed, is more formal in face-to-face interviews than she is on stage. This pronoun pattern – using “we” more in conversation than in formal settings – is the opposite of what we find in the general population. In interviews, Palin uses “I” half as often as an average person and “we” nearly three times more than average. In speeches, on the other hand, her “I” use is fairly effective, and is similar to that of Obama, Biden, and McCain. Overall she uses very few exclusive words, which indicates less cognitive complexity, less exclusiveness, and, possibly, deception. Using less “I” and fewer exclusive words is a hallmark of deceptive language or spin. She might find more empathy than pity in her audience if, when cornered, she admitted her shortcomings rather than unsuccessfully evading the truth.

by Molly Ireland

Joe Biden is notorious for embarrassing interview blunders. He can be a little too uncensored and tends to go off-message when he’s not reading from a script. Our analysis shows, however, that Biden’s speech writers might want to take a few cues from his interview persona. In interviews the Democratic vice presidential candidate is more human and less severe than he is in speeches. When talking as himself, Biden talks like a normal person, using pronouns and verbs at rates that closely match the speaking styles of the average people we’ve recorded over the years. Consequently, in interviews Biden is more approachable, more socially connected, and also more cautious and insightful – in other words, he sounds like a human leader rather than a stuffed suit. The good news about Biden’s interview language is, unfortunately, bad news for his speeches. In speeches Biden comes across as stern and slightly awkward. Whether a candidate appears warm and human or cold and preprogrammed could decide the election. It has in the past.

Here’s a quick summary of the significant differences between Biden in interviews and speeches:


Interviews: personable, normal
first person singular (I, me, my)
second person singular (you, your)
third person singluar (she, him)
past tense (saw, thought)
present tense (looking, think)
verbs (ran, voting)
prepositions (within, over)
conjunctions (and, but)
negations (not, never)
visual (see, look)
hearing (heard, silent)
insight (realize, solve)
tentative (probably, depends)
exclusive (except, without)

Speeches: cold, formal
words with 6+ letters
we (our, us, we’ll)
future tense (should, will)
positive emotion (happy, joy)
anxiety, sadness (worry, grieve)
inhibition (obstacle, ban, stop)
inclusive (both, and)
time (ago, begin, November)
death (bereave, genocide)
body (heart, sweat)
health (doctor, disease)
home (backyard, address)
leisure (party, play)
religion (god, pray)

Sensory words: “looking forward,” “her silence…was deafening.” Biden uses more sensory words in interviews. In conversations with journalists, he’s more likely to say things like “I see” and “I hear” (no difference in feeling words). In this example from his September 7th interview with Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press, Biden talks about listening to news about Palin:

I mean, I hear this talk about, you know, is she going to pick up Hillary voters? Well, I–so far I haven’t heard one single policy position, one single position that she has in common with Hillary.

And from the same interview, in response to Brokaw’s question about whether Democrats should be afraid of Palin:

I mean, I think it’s–well, I don’t–look, that’s for voters to decide. … And as I look down the road, that’s how I’ve always debated whoever I’ve debated, including the really tough women I work with, smart women, in the Senate. So I, I, I really don’t view this any differently. I may be surprised here down the road. But, but, you know, I’m just looking forward to debating her. I mean, why–look, she had a great speech. But what was–her silence on the issues was deafening.

Here Biden is using “look,” “see,” and “hear” in ways that would be common in a normal conversation. He also talks about deafening silence and looking down the road, using sensory metaphors so that his points sink in immediately and make a more visceral impact. Using sensory words figuratively and literally reminds us that Biden is a person – a seeing, hearing person – rather than a disembodied head floating above a lectern.

God and emotion: praying for the troops, but without the melodrama. Biden’s interview language is also more natural in that he talks less about God and death less and uses fewer emotional words than in speeches. In the last several years Republican politicians have made a point of talking about “godless liberals” to motivate fundamentalist Christian voters. Consequently, Democrats have had to talk about God a lot just in order to convince voters that they aren’t in fact heralds of the Beast. The fact that Biden talks about religion a lot more in scripted speeches than in off-script interviews may be caused by this trend. His notoriously uncensored interview language is probably closer to his normal way of speaking. Importantly, in interviews Biden talks about religion almost exactly as much as an average person in conversation: rarely (.3% for Biden, .2% for average people). Religion is private and, in face-to-face talks, Biden usually keeps it that way.

In speeches, Biden used 3.5% negative emotion words, compared with 2.5%, the average for people in conversations. Speeches are meant to be stirring, and it makes sense that speeches given by candidates who oppose the current administration would contain more negative emotions than would be normal in any other setting. So while it’s not necessarily a bad thing that Biden uses more negative emotions in speeches, it is a good sign for the Democratic party he’s less melodramatic and more easygoing in conversation with interviewers. Comfortable, emotionally controlled interviewees make better diplomats than hot-headed gunslingers.

Pronouns, verb tense, and cognitive complexity: “I know,” “because I think.” You can also see in the examples above that he’s using less “we,” and more “I” and third person singular (she, he). He still uses “I” at a pretty low rate in interviews, on average — 4.8% in his most recent interview, with Brokaw, and 2.8% on average over the last three years. But Biden is no Woody Allen – his “I” use is certainly not off the charts. While high “I” – above about 8% — is correlated with neuroticism and maladaptively high self-focus, Biden’s “I” use in the Brokaw interview and on average is significantly less than most people. Low “I” use in conversation usually signifies that the speaker is of higher status. Rather than talking about himself, he is thinking about others, what they should do, how their actions will affect the US, etc. His relatively low “I” use here probably reflects the fact that he is, as a vice presidential nominee with a long, venerable resume, objectively a high status politician.

Also, when Biden uses “I” it’s very rarely in self-critical or self-obsessive ways. In interviews Joe Biden says “I think,” “I know”, and “I mean” frequently. In fact, in speeches and interviews, Biden uses tentative (probably, depends) and insight words (think, know) as well as prepositions (about, within) and conjunctions (but, or) more often in interviews than in speeches. All of these word categories signify greater cognitive complexity. Tentative words particularly are signs of carefulness and restraint – good qualities for a wartime leader to have.

His higher use of “she/he” (1.6% vs .7% in speeches) and “you” (1.6% vs .5%) also shows that he is somewhat socially oriented, and that he is thinking and talking about others almost as much as he is about himself. Again, his “she/he” use is still only about average – he pays attention to the people around him, but he’s not a gossip.

Verbs, past and present. Biden uses present tense and past tense more in interviews than in speeches, although he still uses both tenses less than we normally see in average conversations. His speech writers—and the Republican nominees’ writers, by the way—seem to be trying to spread their message of hope and progress by talking about the future more often than is normal, and the past abnormally infrequently. Usually people use past tense about four times as often as present tense (4% vs. 1%); in Biden’s speeches, he references the future about as often as the past (1.6% past vs. 1.4% future).

Talking more about the future and less about the past in speeches may backfire, making Democrats seem more like starry-eyed future gazers rather than battle-ready realists. In the last few months and during the elections of 2000 and 2004, analysts on both sides of the political divide complained that Democrats failed to seize a multitude of opportunities to capitalize on Republicans’ vulnerabilities – including blatant hypocrisy (male anti-gay rights activists seducing young men online) and campaign misconduct (calling voters at inopportune times with obnoxious messages supposedly from Democratic candidates). The sub-normal levels of past tense verbs in both Biden’s and Obama’s speeches indicate that the party so far appears to be set on the same naïve path.
When Biden is uncensored, on the other hand, he basically gets it right. His increased use of verbs — particularly his much more normal use of past and future tense verbs — makes Biden seem more like a man of action and an everyman in interviews than in speeches.

Summary. To sum up, in interviews Biden comes across as a high status, cognitively complex, but eminently approachable everyman. In terms of pronouns, Biden’s language is high status (lower than average “I”) but personable (higher “I” and lower “we” than in speeches, higher “she/he” and “you” use). He also seems to be an insightful, careful leader, as you can see by his increased use of insight words and other measures of cognitive complexity. Biden also has a tendency to pay much more attention to the present and past in interviews than in speeches. In this respect his language is much closer to a normal person in conversation than most future-gazing politicians. He is also much more natural when talking about religion and emotions in interviews compared with speeches. In speeches he uses far more negative emotion words and religious words than the average person, while in interviews his language in these categories is indistinguishable from the common man he wants to represent.

Taken together, the speeches at the two conventions provide a relatively coherent picture of the images the two parties are trying to convey.  It’s likely that most of the speeches were written by people other than the presenters.  And, even if the presenters had a strong hand in their speech, they were undoubtedly heavily vetted by party insiders.

Using our computer text analysis program LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, see www.liwc.net), we compared the function words of 15 Democratic and 14 Republican speeches that took place during prime time.  In many ways, the language was fairly similar.  However, a couple of striking differences emerged:

Social and Emotional Connections.  Republicans came across as more socially and emotionally connected to their audience than the Democrats.  There was a trend for Republicans to use 1st person singular, 2nd person, and 3rd person pronouns more than Democrats.  More striking was the consistently higher use of 1st person plural (we, us, our) among the Democrats.  As a general rule, politicians who use “we” at high rates are using the Royal We which signals a psychological distancing between speakers and audience.  This follows the foolish advice that Democratic consultants have been giving their candidates since Kerry and Gore.  They falsely assume that the use of “we” conveys a sense of warmth and closeness.  Both Gore and Kerry used “we” at far higher rates than Bush.  Bush used “I” at much higher rates than virtually all of his competitors.  Although Obama is using “we” at the same rate as McCain, McCain is using “I” much more frequently (in their acceptance speeches, 5.9% of McCain’s words and 2.5% of Obama’s words were “I”).

Past and Future, Home and God, Hearing and Feeling.  Whereas Republicans were more likely to use past tense verbs (3.0 vs 2.3 percent), there was a trend for Democrats to refer more to the future (1.3 vs 1.0 percent).  While Democrats talked more about home (.82 vs .47 percent), Republicans referred to God and religion (.57 vs .33 percent).  Finally, Republicans used “hearing” words (I hear what you say), Democrats used more feeling words (I feel what you say).

Obama and Palin, McCain and Biden.  My friend Leland Beatty, a Democratic consultant, LIWCed the language of the President and VP acceptance speeches.  He discovered that Obama and Palin were very similar in their language whereas McCain and Biden were more similar to each other than to their respective running mates.  Leland pointed out that this seems to reflect an age difference among the candidates rather than a party difference.

There IS a huge age difference among the candidates in terms of the ways they use words. But the differences are quite different from what we would expect.  The youngsters, Obama and Palin, used words like old people.  They overused 1st person plural, big words, low emotion word rates, high levels of articles.  McCain and Biden, however, talk like teenagers.  Lots of 1st person singular, high rates of emotions, high use of verbs, especially auxiliary verbs.

This is perhaps what tightly scripted conventions are all about.  The men talk like women and the women talk like men.  The young sound old and the old sound young.

It’s inspirational

–James W. Pennebaker