Melanie Meador

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What to Expect in This Month’s Democratic Debate

Campaign season is well under way for the 2020 election, and for most Americans, that signals a time to think carefully about candidates’ policies, platforms, credentials, and values. For the team here at Quantified, we’re also taking a careful look at the  candidates’ communication styles.

What makes strong political communication? Well, to start, we look for a lot of the characteristics we look for in corporate leaders: confidence, authenticity, the ability to capture and keep the audience’s attention. We also look for expertise and credibility, as well as the ability to clearly outline goals, plans, and visions. As the pool of democratic candidates continues to winnow itself down ahead of the primaries, you can bet we’re keeping an eye on the candidates’ communication, looking for patterns and characteristics in their styles that indicate the potential for leadership ability.

In fact, we used the Quantified communication analytics platform to measure each candidates’ performance at the Iowa Democratic Party Liberty & Justice Celebration last month to get a data-driven look at how the democratic presidential hopefuls compare—communication-wise—to one another and to senior leaders across the United States. (It should be noted that not all democratic candidates qualified to participate in the Iowa event last month; those who did not are excluded from this analysis.)

Three Trends We’re Seeing in Democratic Candidates’ Communication

 

Strong Efforts to Build Trust with Voters

Based on their performance at last month’s town hall, many of the democratic candidates are communicating in a way that should help them build trust with voters. The trustworthiness of a person’s communication is measured on a variety of markers that indicate a speaker is someone we can rely on to say or do what is right. The patterns we look at include both those associated with deception, like negative sentiment, and more positive traits, like first-person pronouns or a level of detail that is cognitively difficult to convey, indicating a speaker’s honesty by demonstrating her confidence in the details.

In the Iowa event, Amy Klobuchar presented herself as exceptionally trustworthy—52 percent more so than the average of her democratic competitors. Her high trust score was driven by her use of personal pronouns—“I” and “we” language—that indicate two things: first, that a speaker is focused on her plans and her vision rather than on someone else’s and second, that she’s taking personal responsibility for her words and actions. In the following example, her repeated use of “I will” converts her plans from vague ideas of things someone ought to do into concrete action items Klobuchar is holding herself responsible for undertaking.

I'll go to her neighborhoods and bring them gun safety legislation. I will go to our small towns and bring them rural broadband […]. I will go to our hospitality workers and our food service workers and tell them, yes, you deserve an increase in the minimum wage and child care. And I will go to our military bases with humility and with decency and respect grounded and born in the allegiance to the United States flag. That is what this is about. But to do this, we cannot just change our politics. No, we have to change the tone in our politics, and that is what I will do.

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Elizabeth Warren, however, struggled to use trust-building language, falling 74 percent below her fellow candidates in that area. She used 43 percent less “I” language and 4 percent less “we” language than her fellow candidates, but she also used 165 percent more negative language, a characteristic research has shown to be indicative of untrustworthy communication. In the November town hall, Warren’s participation was focused more on the failings of our current government than on her own plans to improve it, making it difficult for her to build a foundation of trust with her audience.

 

Expertise on Stage

One of the questions we ask of every candidate is whether they have the experience required to take on the office of president. And it was in demonstrating her expertise that Warren excelled. She scored 59 percent higher in audience perception of her expertise than the average candidate at last month’s event, communicating clearly and coherently, with an assured and confident presence that indicated her deep grasp of the content she was discussing.

Expertise is of particular concern for young candidates, but 37-year-old Pete Buttigieg also scored much higher than the average democratic debater in that category. His commanding visual presence (driven by strong facial expressions, gestures, and movements), coherent messaging, and clear topic mastery contributed to his presentation as an expert in the matters at hand.

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Klobuchar also positioned herself as an expert on the Iowa stage, while others had a harder time. Yang, Bennet, and Delaney each scored significantly lower than their peers in perceived expertise; for Bennet and Delaney, perhaps this lag contributed to their difficulty qualifying for the December debate.

 

When it Comes to Optimism, a Mixed Bag

The candidates’ optimism during the town hall was fairly evenly split, with Bernie Sanders the surprising most hopeful of the bunch, at 86 percent more optimistic than the average candidate. Biden and Yang were at the opposite end of the spectrum, at 61 and 63 percent less optimistic than their peers. On average, the candidates scored just 44 (out of 100) in their levels of optimism.

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This isn’t altogether surprising, as we measure optimism based on the degree of positivity a speaker expresses about the future, regardless of his or her view of the present situation. And it’s no secret that this group of candidates is feeling pretty negative about the present political situation in the United States. The more optimistic speakers at the November event were able to pivot from the present and show their positive vision for a brighter future, as Sanders did:

            We will end starvation […]

            We will have universal pre-K […]

We will reform a broken and racist criminal justice system. We will end the war on drugs.

We will […] make certain that it is the women of this country who have the right to control their own bodies, not politicians.

These “we will” statements paint a brighter future, giving Sanders’s performance at the town hall an overall optimistic cast.

 

And One Trend We’re Not Seeing…Yet

While the democratic candidates are demonstrating several important leadership communication traits, we haven’t yet seen a significant amount of storytelling—a skill that is critical in campaign communication.According to Mark McKinnon, chief strategy and media advisor to a former US president, and producer of the Showtime hit “The Circus,” storytelling is the foundation to successful political communication. These days, he says, we tend to favor the presidential candidate who comes with the best narrative.

We gauge storytelling language on a wide variety of components, including emotional undertones, sensory words that evoke setting, the anxiety-building language that makes us want to keep listening for a resolution, and the use of the classic narrative arc that propels our favorite books and movies. (For more on the components of effective storytelling, read our recent blog post.)

During the primaries leading up to the 2016 election, Trump’s storytelling game was strong, while Clinton’s was more varied. This go ’round, we’re still waiting for a storytelling standout. Perhaps the upcoming December debate will change that.

We won’t pretend to use our communication analytics to predict candidates’ successes at the polls, but we are eager to continue tracking the way these presidential hopefuls present themselves to voters. Will these trends continue through the next debates, or will we see the numbers swing as candidates hone their communication strategies? Stay tuned with us. You can be sure we’ll be tracking.

 


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