The Winning Words of Candidates

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November 2, 2012

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been posturing and pontificating for what feels like forever; not even superstorm Sandy could slow them much.

Their speeches are wildly applauded (by supporters, at least), closely analyzed and assiduously fact-checked.

With good reason. Campaign speeches can play an important role in determining whom Americans will elect. But some researchers feel that may be due not as much to content or delivery as to the particular words they contain.

They can tell that by using the cool world of mathematics to cut through the blustery bombast of politics.

Chetan Narain, who has a degree in operations research and financial engineering from Princeton and now works for Google, says the actual words in a candidate’s speech are more important than you might think.

“One thing that I think words do, especially in the modern world of Twitter, Facebook and the internet in general, is that they stick with you long after the speech is over.”

Think of, ahem, Romney’s comment from a recent presidential debate of having received “binders full of women.”

Narain created a mathematical model that he says can predict who will win a presidential race, based on campaign speeches alone.

This might seem a bit crystal ball-ish. But hang on. What Narain did was analyze more than a thousand speeches from 12 presidential campaigns between 1952 to 1996, as well as 2008.

From that, he created a model that predicted whether a speech came from a winning candidate or a losing one.

Winning words

Speeches clearly can’t encapsulate all the factors that can decide an election. But they can pick up on some interesting intangibles that can help predict a victor.

Mitt Romney likes to emphasize his five-point plan for the American economy. Plan seems to be winning word. 

Narain’s model, for example, highlights three areas: a candidate’s speaking style, the most important issues of the day, and the candidate’s position on those issues.

To have a winning speech, he says, “it’s important to sound urgent, it’s important to sound positive, it’s important to sound confident that you’re going to win and it’s important to make sure that your plans are getting out there.”

There are some key words that often show up in these so-called winning speeches. One of them is very which Obama likes to wing around, as in this phrase: “Citizenship – a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy.”

It’s a word that invokes a sense of urgency, a call to action.

Other winning words are president and win. Obvious, perhaps, but saying those words seems to make them ring true.

It’s also important, it seems, for a candidate to repeat Republican and Democrat to differentiate and set the tone for a speech. And mentioning Medicare is often applauded, as are the words issue and plan. It seems voters do value ideas — or at least nod to them — after all.

Rhetorical losers

However, throwing around the word Washington does not a winning speech make; it sounds insidery.

Americans also don’t care so much for the words per cent and rate, perhaps because the message can get lost in the numbers. Who wants to do long division when you just want to be inspired?

And while words like vote and elect are winners on some occasions, that is not so much the case when used in the negative, or double-negative, as Romney did here: “To the majority of Americans who now believe the future will not be better than the past, I can guarantee you this — if Barack Obama is re-elected, you will be right.”

Narain analyzed almost 100 campaign speeches by Obama and Romney this election. In addition to piling up the winning words, Obama employed verbs 20 per cent more often than Romney, who tends to use clunkier nouns.

Verbs are winners. Social psychologist James Pennebaker has shown that verbs can indicate optimism or enthusiasm.

(He also found that using I denotes someone who is personal, honest, and more humble than someone who says we, which creates distance from the audience. And the research indicates Obama seems to be embracing his I-phrases more often this time around.)

Parties or personalities

All of this winning talk pushed Obama over the top in the first of Narain’s analyses. Sixty per cent of his speeches were classified as winning versus only half of Romney’s.

Sometimes words can fail even the best politicians.

But that was before the two parties’ conventions at the end of the summer.

Since then, Romney has gained swagger, as his rally in Ohio last week attested: “We want real change, we want big change. We’re ready. This is our time. I need your help. We’re going to win on November 6.”

More recently, Narain has found that about 80 per cent of Romney’s speeches are now deemed to be winning, versus only 40 per cent of Obama’s.

“We have gone from a commanding Obama lead to pretty much a dead heat,” says Narain. “I think it’s really interesting to see that swing, and it’s even more exciting to see that swing roughly correlates with what we’re seeing in the polls.”

Interestingly, the model shows that until the convention, Obama uttered Democrat twice as often, and Republican seven times more than Romney.

It appeared he was the one attempting to make the campaign more about differences between the parties.

For his part, Romney has emphasized personalities, by saying Obama’s name 20 per cent more often than is the reverse.

More recently, however, Romney’s name is on the president’s tongue much more often, suggesting the race has become a bit more personal for both of them.

Listen here:


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