Speech Complexities of 2016 Presidential Hopefuls

Speech Complexities of 2016 Presidential Hopefuls

It’s the highest office in the land and a position reserved for an elite few: the president of the United States. With the election drawing near, we decided to analyze recent speeches made by the 2016 candidates (as well as the past and current POTUS) to discover who uses the most complex words, whose speeches contain language of higher reading levels, and which contenders toss around the most buzzwords. When it comes to language, who’s at the head of the class: Republicans or Democrats? Does education level affect a candidate’s speech patterns? Is our future leader more likely to be eloquent or plainspoken? Read on to find out.

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Word Length and Complexity

In the above chart, you will note that current Vice President Joe Biden tops the list for both word length (letters per word) and complexity (syllables per word). Yes, that’s Joe Biden – the one who has long drawn criticism for his purported lack of intelligence, his frequent slips of the tongue (such as referring to a Singapore leader as “the wisest man in the Orient”), and the plagiarism and fabrication that prompted him to drop out of the 1988 presidential race. As a child, Biden had a terrible stutter, but he grew up to deliver powerful and heartfelt speeches. It’s the vice president’s tendency to blurt out foot-in-mouth remarks that sabotages him.

At the bottom for both word length and complexity dwells Donald Trump: perhaps a surprise given his education level (he holds an economics degree) and wealth of opportunities early in life. But listen to him speak, and it’s clear immediately the results are accurate: Along with a propensity to blurt out inappropriate comments, he prefers simple sentence structures, overuses qualifiers such as “very” and “really,” and sticks to basic words. “I am a really smart guy,” he told TIME magazine in 2011. And at the 2015 Republican presidential debate, he said, “What I say is what I say.” Indeed.

Surprisingly, oft-maligned George W. Bush – who pronounces nuclear “nucular,” earned C’s in school and is known for folksy language and malapropisms (he once “misunderestimated” something) – scores in the top third overall for word length and complexity, and he comes in third place among Republicans. While Bush is known for off-the-cuff gaffes, his speeches tended to be formal and carefully delivered, which could explain his score.

President Barack Obama scores in the bottom third – nine spots below George W. Bush – and is the lowest among Democrats. One theory? Obama’s desire to appeal to young voters may lead him to speak more simply and casually, even during formal announcements. He’s known for his jokes (“What are you guys doing in my yard?” he famously asked the Girl Scouts camped on the White House lawn) as well as his use of contemporary lingo is his everyday speech (“Nah, we straight” he told a cashier at a restaurant who offered him his change). One interesting point: While Obama doesn’t use complex words as frequently, he actually scores on the high end for word length. Clearly, although he prioritizes plain, straightforward language during speeches, he does not shy away from descriptive words.

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Speech Reading Level and Candidate Education Level

This chart compares each candidate’s highest education level with his or her reading level (based on the grade level of the text contained in speeches). Once again, Biden tops the list for complex language, while Trump is at the bottom. This trend is echoed on a broader level: Democrats occupy the majority of the top five spots, and Republicans hold every spot on the bottom half of the chart. Clearly, party of affiliation seems to hold much more sway over speech reading level than education level does.

When it comes to contenders’ education levels, the most common degree among candidates is the Juris Doctor (JD), which is required to practice law in the U.S. Ten of the 21 candidates hold a JD, while five hold undergraduate degrees, two hold master’s degrees, one has an MBA, two hold medical degrees, and one did not graduate. Why are JDs so common? It makes sense that the study and practice of law serve as a solid background for a presidential hopeful. People with a law background learn to decipher policy and legislation, hone their speaking and reasoning skills, and rub elbows with potentially valuable contacts and supporters.

Following in the footsteps of Harry Truman (the last president who didn’t hold a degree), Republican Scott Walker is the only current presidential contender who did not graduate from college. While some have criticized Walker, others point out that the majority of people in the United States similarly do not hold degrees – and the insinuation that a person requires one to succeed is offensive and elitist. On this chart, Scott Walker scored above four other candidates, each of whom held an undergraduate, JD, or medical degree.

Speech Reading Level by Party

Decades ago, presidential candidates delivered speeches to wealthy male landowners; today, they’re delivered to all of us. Currently, the average grade level for a Republican presidential candidate’s speech is 9.1, while speeches delivered by Democrat candidates average a grade level of 10.2.

While it’s tempting to decry the so-called “dumbing down” of presidential language, it’s actually a reflection of the changing times. Complex speeches aren’t necessarily better speeches; often, they are simply more confusing speeches. It’s safe to say that were George Washington delivering a speech today, most Americans would require the aid of a translator. (His Inaugural Address in 1789 began, “Among the vicissitudes incident to life, no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order and received on the fourteenth day of the present month.”)

The full grade level difference between the parties underscores the fact that when discussing politics, Republicans and Democrats use language differently. Words and phrases favored by Republicans tend to be shorter and more basic: “taxes” rather than “revenue,” “illegal” rather than “undocumented,” and “The Patriot Act” rather than “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.”

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2016 Presidential Buzzwords

As Election Day draws nearer, the buzzwords are flying. We examined six popular words and phrases – “change,” “climate change,” “job,” “terror,” “education,” and “faith” – to see which five candidates uttered each one most.

Some words fall clearly on one side of the party line. Not surprisingly, “faith” and “terror” both are Republican words, with only one Democrat in the top five for each. On the other side, “climate change” is firmly in the Democratic camp, with only one Republican in the top five. “Change” is predominantly Democrat lingo, though Republican Marco Rubio appears to be almost as fixated on change as President Obama. More neutral terms, “job” and “education,” are fairly equally split.

As for specific candidates, Republican Marco Rubio uses buzzwords with an impressive frequency, with Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush on his heels. On the Democrat side, Bernie Sanders is a fan of these terms as are Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

Fun fact: When it comes to the word “China,” Donald Trump says it more than nine times more often than any other candidate. Nine times. One news site even spliced together a 3-minute highlight reel solely featuring Donald Trump saying, “China.” One theory about his frequent critiques on China and promise to “beat China” in trade is that he hopes to win over Americans who are nervous about China’s strength.

Presidential Language

Analyzing candidates’ speeches and announcements revealed some surprising facts (George W. Bush uses more complex language than Obama!) and not-so-surprising facts (Donald Trump does not use complex language). For the most part, though penned and delivered by highly educated people, presidential candidates’ speeches are designed to appeal to the masses. After all, most writing experts agree that clear, simple language is the key to good communication: Why say “advantageous” when you can say “helpful,” and why say “proficiencies” when you can say “skills”?

During speeches, Republicans – on the whole – tend to speak more simply than Democrats. And regardless of language complexity, politicians who are awkward at ad-libbing can still deliver articulate speeches. Buzzwords are popular among both parties (perhaps some candidates could benefit from a thesaurus), and one thing is true across the board: When it comes to presidential speeches, it’s the simple messages that resonate for years to come.

Methodology

For each candidate, the closed captioning text for seven recent campaign speeches (including candidates’ announcement speeches) was processed programmatically to determine an approximate reading level, syllables per word, and word length. Reading level was determined by using the Coleman-Liau index, a readability algorithm that approximates the grade level required to comprehend text.

The consideration of candidates’ use of so-called “buzzwords” counted the number of occurrences of each of the words in question in each of the seven speeches. Note that for the word “change,” occurrences of “ change ” with spaces on other side of the word were counted to exclude instance where “change” was a substring within another word (e.g., “exchange”).

Fair Use

Mashoid.co encourages the sharing, hosting, and redistribution of these images and results. When doing so, we ask that bloggers and journalists link to this page so their readers can access all assets available and be aware of the full methodology.

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Latest posts by Mashoid Team (see all)

  • Syllabus

    NB: in contrasting shorter and longer versions of the same words, the article lists “The Patriot Act” and “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”. These are not remotely the same piece of legislation, and so noting that one party favours one word while the other favours the other may be true, but is entirely uninformative when it comes to determining the relative word length preferences.

    • Woopsie

      The conclusion to be reached is: If you are going to write an article designed to dump on people and their edumication, then at least try to show you graduated high school in your own words.

  • Ayy Bola

    Gosh somehow I just knew that this was going to be yet another article trying to tear down Trump.

    You guys need to step up your game. It’s obvious how scared you are.

    • Vape Escape

      No one is scared of Trump winning. He will win just like Romney will win in a landslide. Oh, wait.

  • Bennie The Bouncer

    The reason these ratings don’t correlate with the intelligence of the various people listed is because the majority of the speeches were professionally written for them. Their intelligence cannot be evaluated consequent to that kind of public presentation. Only in off the cuff interaction such as interviews and debates will the individual’s innate ability to reason, much less speak, reveal itself.

    One more thing: The average length of a word in pre-written material (which would certainly include speeches) is considered to be five characters. You chart maxes out at below five. Consequently none of these ratings is cause for considering the underlying speech to be particularly erudite. For instance, this comment contains an average word length of 5.4 characters. Its Coleman-Liau index is 13.4, whereas the syllable complexity is 1.5, catapulting me right to the top. I also say “nuclear” correctly. Presidential material? Unlikely.

  • njschultz

    The three most destructive Presidents we have had in the last 100 years (Wilson, Carter and Obama) have all had extremely high levels of education (although I would argue that a J.D.—-which until recently was merely conferred as an LLAB or second b a c h e l o r ‘ s degree is hardly stuff of a “higher education”). Being a leader and possessing the skills of a leader often do not depend upon one’s education. The slant of this article is too biased to ignore. Big words do NOT necessarily lead to BIG thinking. Our current President has been plagued by “analysis paralysis” and it has shown up time again as weakness and incapcity to LEAD —- making him probably our weakest President in the last 150 years —-> back to the election of James Buchanan in 1856. It seems clear to me talking like an academic and conflating the erudition of speech with the wisdom to make the right decision are often NOT the same thing. Obama has proved this over and over again. If only he weren’t black we might have got rid of him after the first term.

    • skraf

      Totally off on your 3 most destructive presidents in the last 100 years. They were, in order of destructiveness, Hoover, Reagan, and G H W Bush.

      • njschultz

        Reagan only had one of two branches Congress under GOP control for TWO years. The DEMs had control of both for nearly 50 years. The burden of blame clearly lives with those who had the power NOT with those with whom you disagree ideologically. GHW Bush…really? A weak one-term President. Between your heart and your head, I can see how you make decisions and analyze information.

        • skraf

          Meant GW not GHW. And he was, without a doubt the worst president of all time. Historians will agree in 100 years the 3 I picked are the worst. Reagan’s Congress didn’t change the way inflation was measured to hide his failure. Reagan’s Congress didn’t change the way unemployment was measured. Reagan’s Congress didn’t run from the Beirut barracks bombing only to pick on little Carribean countries. Reagan’s Congress didn’t run with trickle down economics (otherwise known as the worst economy buster of all time).

          • Neal Schultz

            Just funny you picked all GOP Presidents. A zebra showing his stripes or just his braying? ?

          • skraf

            Funny how the person I replied to chose all Democrat presidents. A zebra showing his stripes or just braying? And every one I picked were destroyers of the economies of their times.. whereas the ones he picked were left to pick up the pieces of economies destroyed by the Republcians they replaced.

          • njschultz

            And on that note we happily veer off back into our respective worlds…agreeing to disagree…without any name calling. Fabuloso. I like it.

          • skraf

            Wait a sec… without any namecalling? Excuse me, but what did you do to me?

            “A zebra showing his stripes or just his braying?”

            Namecalling in all essence without doing the actual deed. Might want to better evaluate your words before you post them if civility is your actual goal in political debates.

        • skraf

          Reagan has a Congress that worked with him. Obama had a Republican Congress that vowed on the day that he took office to obstruct literally everything he and the Democrats tried to impliment. It doesn’t matter what kind of education a person has, when you’re dealing with that kind of criminal obstructionism, you’re not going to be as an effective president as you could be.. but still, Obama succeeded.. only RWNJs fail to consider him as a great president.

          Carter had the misfortune of being president directly after the Arab Oil Embargo, and the 2nd took place during his office. And if you don’t think high energy prices have a negative effect on the economy, then you haven’t studied history.

  • Tom G

    Let’s see how they spell.

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