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  • Words don't lie: semantic mapping of presidential debate shows what's really on candidates' minds

    With the global economy imploding and the United States mired in two wars of attrition, the presidential candidates met for their first debate Sept. 26 at the University of Mississippi. By counting their words we can create a semantic map for each candidate, a map which shows just how skillfully Sens. McCain and Obama skirted these pressing issues.

    The most frequent words out of John McCain's mouth were "Senator Obama," which he said a total of 45 times according to the Washington Post's tag cloud analysis. Sen. Obama's favorite word was "going" (55 occurrences; the Post didn't count words like the and is, focusing instead on more substantive substantives and more verbal verbs).

    Washington Post tag cloud of the debate

    The Washington Post's tag cloud of the candidates' words gives an accurate semantic map of each candidate without making us listen to what they're actually saying

    According to MSNBC, Obama said Al Qaida about twice as often as McCain, but not enough to stir the needle on the Post's tag cloud counter. Obama said billion some 22 times, but McCain mentioned no big dollar amounts, confirming his belief that if you have to ask what something costs, then you can't afford it. Neither candidate mentioned subprime mortgage. They can afford not mentioning it, because their homes are paid for. 

    Of course partisan readers will bend even a tag cloud to fit their preconceived notions of what was said, and this produces misleading or contradictory semantic maps. For example, Democratic pundits concluded that the frequency of going showed Obama to be a man of action, while McCain's rehearsal of his opponent's name indicated that the aging senator had to constantly remind himself who he was talking to. But Republicans found just the opposite, spinning McCain as a pragmatist rooted firmly in the present while Obama was off wool gathering about the future.

    McCain said Senator Obama more often than he said Iraq (17 times), Afghanistan (11), and troops (also 11). And McCain, who just turned 72 this week, found more ways to say, "I'm really an old guy" than his handlers might have liked. On the other hand, Obama said years 21 times, a thinly-veiled attempt to convince voters that he is actually old enough to be president.

    Barack Obama said Senator McCain 35 times, though he also said John 25 times, the same number of times he said president. That means Obama thinks McCain will be president. Or it could mean that Obama was thinking of John Adams, who is even older than John McCain, and whose vice president was Thomas Jefferson.

    Obama said United States half as many times as McCain, suggesting to the Illinois senator's critics a lack of patriotism, but Obama wore an American flag pin to make up for it, since a picture is worth a thousand words, and a flag pin is worth a lot more than that, even if it was made in China. McCain, whose patriotism had already been stipulated by both sides, went jewelry-optional for the evening. But the candidates could have gotten by without saying United States at all, since viewers weren't likely to mistake which country the senators were hoping to become president of.

    Sen. Obama during the debate 

    Barack Obama wore a flag pin in his lapel, but Sen. McCain said United States twice as many times. 

    Obama said tax 27 times to McCain's 17, as any tax-and-spend Democrat might be expected to do. But McCain, a man so rich he doesn't know how many houses he owns, said spending 28 times, once more than he said United States. His semantic map shows a man more concerned about what to buy next than, as another president-named-John, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, once put it, what to do for his country. 

    Sen. McCain during debate  

    Sen. McCain counting how many homes he owns.

    McCain said nuclear 11 times, Obama 17, proving that both candidates could pronounce the word correctly, which is important if you're the person with the launch codes. And Obama said sure 24 times, because he didn't want any Swiftboat Republicans accusing him of flip-flopping on the issues.

    Finally, John McCain said think 17 times, as many times as he said tax, but Barack Obama said think 40 times. Think was actually Sen. Obama's second most frequent word, after going, which suggests that Obama hasn't been able to live down his past as an elitist college professor who spent too much time thinking and going around stirring up trouble as a community organizer. Sen. McCain's second most frequent word was spending, which suggests that McCain puts spending before thinking, and after he spends, he thinks about taxing (the money has to come from somewhere).

    You may be wondering at this point whether this semantic mapping has any validity. Well, it does.

    Remember the days when literary critics explained the meaning of a poem by counting how many times a writer mentioned robins or daffodils? Lots of daffodils meant that Wordsworth didn't suffer from allergies. And robins, well they were powerful symbols of spring, so any poem with a robin was a poem about spring. Like, for example, "The Ballad of Robin Hood."

    Some pollsters anxious to track the impact of the candidates' words taped electrodes to the brains of focus group members watching the debates, recording precise blood pressure and respiration rates every time a candidate said something, and sending small jolts of electricity through the wires each time someone in the audience dozed off. But there's really no need for this kind of hyperscientific analysis when you can figure out exactly what kind of president McCain or Obama would make without parsing, or even listening to, their sentences.

    The presidential candidates have been accused of lying, or at least stretching the truth, by the nonpartisan voter advocacy group factcheck.org. But semantic mapping doesn't lie. By counting the candidates' words and ignoring their context we can doze undisturbed through the boring parts of the presidential debate, ignore the polls, and still come away with a more meaningful understanding of what happened than anything provided by the talking heads at FoxNews or MSNBC. 

biotechnique@gmail.com Nov 17, 2008 12:00 pm

Not surprising that McCain sais "senator Obama" the most. I found similar things happen when doing social media keyword research when using various online tools. Just be measuring the "buzz," we were able to accurately predict who would 'win' the debates. Sadly, with the election over, it's back to work...


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