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Crunching the Numbers on Sounding Presidential: A Guest Post

One of the really fun innovations in this election cycle is the extent to which the speech of the candidates has now become grist for statistical analysis. For instance, the Times’ “Caucus” blog reports that Reagan’s name was invoked 53 times last night, and by this measure Romney beat McCain 19 to 12. The Times has now set up a “Transcript Analyzer” where you can play the same game on any word of your choosing. (I already checked: No-one said “sex”, even once; this was the Republican debate, after all.) Earlier, the Times presented an analysis of who was mentioning whom, so you could figure out the rivalries among the candidates.

One of my favorite economists, Bruce Sacerdote, and his student Owen Zidar have kicked it up another notch. In a new study, they crunch a database containing all the words used in the speeches made by the major candidates (through to Jan 5). They have some pretty interesting findings:

Obama and Clinton rarely mention other candidates by name — less than twice per 10,000 words.

When they check the context in which candidates typically name their opponents, it is typically negative. This can be interpreted as a measure of negativity, and by this measure, the most negative campaigners were Mitt Romney and John Edwards.

They construct a Reagan-ometer, measuring the similarity of a candidate’s words with the former President, relative to the usage of those same words by Martin Luther King, Jr. Interestingly, the two most Reagan-esque speakers are the Republican frontrunners, John McCain and Mitt Romney. Barack Obama and former preacher Mike Huckabee more closely resemble the oratory of Martin Luther King, Jr.

They propose a more standard left-right ranking assessing the closeness of one’s speech to Bill Clinton versus George W. Bush. Many of these finds are as expected, as Republicans were typically more like Bush than Democrats. The one surprise was that Giuliani was not only more Clinton-esque than his fellow Republicans, but also more so than John Edwards.

Focusing on alternative brands of “Democrat,” they also ask whether one’s speech more closely resembles (Bill) Clinton, or former Democratic President LBJ. It turns out that Hillary’s speech is much more similar to her husband. This Clinton-ometer ranks Hillary as a true Clinton-ite. But perhaps this is a bit unfair, as I’m sure that living with someone tends to make your speech particularly similar.

And the most popular words on the campaign trail so far? Care, war, health, Iraq, security, energy, economy, jobs, life, and tax.

Read the cleverly titled paper, “Campaigning in Poetry…”