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Presidential poetry: What the candidates' words reveal

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 01/30/08 • Sue Knapp • (603) 646-3661

Owen Zidar '08 and Bruce Sacerdote
Owen Zidar '08 and Bruce Sacerdote (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Which candidate sounds most like Martin Luther King Jr. or Bill Clinton? Who is more negative in campaigning, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? A Dartmouth student and his professor have analyzed the texts of hundreds of speeches to make revealing comparisons.

"Studying the use of words can help us understand a candidate's policy position or provide insight into personality," says Owen Zidar, a Dartmouth senior who is majoring in economics.

Zidar and Economics Professor Bruce Sacerdote learned that both Huckabee and Obama frequently use the words 'children,' 'commitment,' 'poverty,' and 'revolutionary,' which points to a resemblance to the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. John McCain and Mitt Romney are the most like Ronald Reagan, all using the words 'economic,' 'free,' and 'nuclear' frequently. The words in Hillary Clinton's speeches strongly resemble those of her husband, Bill.

"Lots of pundits have compared the candidates to historical figures," says Sacerdote, "but we set out to quantify the comparisons using their actual words. A candidate's choice of words can sometimes reveal something hidden or deep about beliefs that aren't obvious unless you really pick it apart mathematically. We can study many years of speeches to maybe determine if a candidate's position has shifted or how much a candidate resembles JFK."

In a ranking of comparisons between Bill Clinton and Lyndon Baines Johnson, Hillary Clinton, Rudy Guiliani, and Mike Huckabee all are similar to Bill in that they use words like 'security,' 'education,' 'think,' and 'need.' Hillary is by far the most similar to Bill Clinton. Fred Thompson and John McCain are the most like LBJ (and hence the least like Bill Clinton) on this scale.

Similar patterns emerge in a Bill Clinton-George W. Bush comparison. Hillary still closely resembles Bill, and McCain and Romney sound like Bush. McCain frequently uses the words 'Iraqi' and 'disarm,' while 'cold-blooded' is used by Romney; all words favored by Bush.

Zidar and Sacerdote also counted the number of times a candidate refers to another candidate by name to learn who was the most negative. Obama and Clinton are the least negative. Edwards is nearly four times more negative than Obama, and Romney is nearly five times more negative than Obama. (The authors admit that not all mentions of an opponent are necessarily negative, but after some spot checking, they discovered that most are.)

"Our analysis only provides a little bit of insight into the candidates," says Sacerdote. "But I think it's an interesting examination of the rhetoric."

Download the paper: "Campaigning in poetry: Is there information conveyed in the candidates' choice of words?" (176kb PDF)

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