Talk the talk, walk the walk

Talk the talk, walk the walk

New research shows language used by presidential candidates affects the outcome of elections

By Anne Craig

June 23, 2016


Research out of Queen’s University sheds new light on explaining the election outcomes in United States presidential campaigns.

Analyzing 456 speeches and debates over 20 years, researchers David Skillicorn (School of Computing) and Christian Leuprecht (Political Studies) show that speech patterns of incumbents differ notably from those used in their first-term campaign and that speech patterns of winners differ from those of losers.

“Language improvement by incumbents occurs rapidly, suggesting that it is the result of changing self-perception rather than a conventional learning process,” says Dr. Skillicorn. “For example, Bill Clinton’s language use changed within a few months of his inauguration; Barack Obama’s not until close to the beginning of his re-election campaign, but neither changed speechwriters until well after the language change.

From the pattern of words used by contenders for the White House, Drs. Skillicorn and Leuprecht find that winners use positive words extensively, avoid negative words carefully, do not talk about policy specifics (the media cares but voters don’t) and don't talk about the other candidate.

Although this approach seems plausible, it’s clear that no candidate was able to bring themselves to use it in a first election campaign. Nevertheless, the candidate who used it the most won each election and incumbent candidates were able to use it more strongly.

“It's interesting that Donald Trump has the self-image that allows him to use such positive language quite well,” says Dr. Skillicorn. “Ross Perot also used this language at high levels in the 1992 election campaign - and led the party candidates in opinion polls for most of the summer of 1992.”

The research was just published in Electoral Studies, the world’s premier scholarly journal on voting and electoral systems and strategy.

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