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The Last Word on the Presidential Debates

A Linguistic Analysis

What does an analysis of the language used by the candidates in the Presidential debates reveal about the candidates? Research by the Lexiteria Company, a word products and services company, came up with some interesting results.

Dr. Robert Beard, professor emeritus of linguistics at Bucknell University and currently president of Lexiteria (alphadictionary.com), used the widely adopted text complexity tool developed by MetaMetrics, called the Lexile® Framework for Reading. The Lexile Framework for Reading (Lexile.com) evaluates reading ability and text complexity on the same developmental scale. Recognized as the standard for matching readers with texts, tens of millions of students worldwide receive a Lexile measure that helps them find targeted readings from the more than 100 million articles, books and websites that have been measured.

To get some idea of the ranges quoted below, USA Today maps to approximately an 11th grade level, and the New York Times, to a college freshman level.

Converting from the Lexile scale, Beard's analysis showed that in all three debates Obama scored somewhere between an 11th and 12th grade level. The widely perceived failure in the first debate is not reflected in the level of Obama's speech. What is surprising, though, Romney scored a rather consistent 7th grade level over all three debates.

Perhaps the higher level of Obama's speech reflects his statesmanship. Obama's rhetorical skills have been criticized for being too academic, interfering with comprehensibility. Romney has a business background, where simple, straightforward talk is appreciated. But Obama's consistent lead in the polls and ultimate win would indicate that this is not a serious problem in the 2012 election. According to Beard, "Obama's speech is aimed perfectly at readers of USA Today and the New York Times."

Romney's speech level, on the other hand, implies an attempt to reach the broadest range of voters, everyone who has completed the 7th grade. However, using a simpler vocabulary means you need more words to explain complex positions. The word count of the three debates clearly reflect this: Romney outspoke the President by around 500 words in the first two debates and a whopping 1000 words in the third.

"Outspeaking President Obama by so much–14%–may also reflect Romney's strategy for the foreign policy debate," Beard said. "Since Obama knows considerably more about foreign policy than Romney, it may have been Romney's strategy to restrain Obama from fully responding to the questions asked." The fact that Romney outspoke the president in all the debates may reflect a strategy of holding the president to fewer words on all topics.

By comparison, both President Carter and Ronald Reagan debated at a college level back in 1980. President Bush debated at a 7th grade level and Bill Clinton at an 11th grade level in 1992. Kennedy and Nixon also debated at roughly the same levels: Kennedy at an 11th grade level, Nixon at about at 10th grade level.

So what was the highest level ever achieved in a presidential political debate? In the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, Stephen A. Douglas scored, according to the Lexile scale, about a college sophomore reading level. Lincoln scored only slightly lower.

Presidential candidates are faced with the problem of desiring to appear knowledgeable and presidential at the same time as avoiding pomposity. They want to stay between these two levels, the borders of which vague and indistinct. However, the President did manage to ourperform Mr. Romney in language level and style, which may have helped him win the election.