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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