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Speech patterns of incumbent presidents differ from speech patterns used in their first campaign

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Presidents campaigning for re-election use better influential language in their re-election campaign than they did in their first campaign, according to a recent study published online this June in Electoral Studies. The study provides some explanation of the incumbency effect.

U.S. presidential election campaigns are the most highly funded and studied attempts to influence the behavior of a wide-ranging audience. Interestingly, from 1868 to 2012, over two-thirds of the 23 presidential candidates seeking re-election won. This “incumbency effect” (incumbency: the holding of an office) suggests that the current president has an advantage over the challenger. However, little is known about why this effect occurs.

It has been suggested that this effect is related to 2 main areas: structural advantages held by incumbents and communication advantages.

The study, by Christian Leuprecht (Royal Military College of Canada) and David Skillicorn (Queen’s University) examined language patterns in U.S. presidential elections from 1992 to 2012. The analyses involved all three incumbent candidates during this period: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The results revealed clear differences between the language patterns associated with “successful” and “unsuccessful” U.S. presidential campaigns. The “language of influence” was characterized by: no change in word content (i.e. winners do not have better ideas or present them more cleverly); a decrease in words with negative connotations; words with positive connotations are used more frequently; less attention is paid to competitors; and there is greater variation in word choice overall (e.g. a decrease in the use of economic nouns in second campaigns).

The analyses also found that the gap between winner and loser tends to remain roughly constant, suggesting that a challenger raises their level and uses better influential language when facing an incumbent. The researchers also highlighted, “The increase in strength of influence happens quite quickly, either at the beginning of the first term or at the beginning of the second campaign, suggesting that it is driven by changes in self-perception rather than deliberate strategy or increasing experience.”

The researchers concluded, “The article shows that, behind the language used by challengers and incumbents, and successful and unsuccessful candidates, there is a linear scale of language that wins elections.” Therefore, presidents campaigning for re-election use better influential language in their re-election campaign than they did in their first campaign, which provides some explanation of the incumbency effect.

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