Binders and Barbs: The Words and Style of the Second Presidential Debate

Tuesday evening we went down the old presidential debate road yet again, meeting our candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama for a second time with all the convivial discourse-ready trappings of America.

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Tuesday evening we went down the old presidential debate road yet again, meeting our candidates and "friends" Mitt Romney and Barack Obama for a second time with all the convivial discourse-ready trappings of America: flaming red carpet and wallpaper stars, soaring eagle murals and backless stools upon which to prop, two guys in dark suits and flag pins. Candy Crowley was there as moderator, and a bunch of real-blooded American folks hung out in the background in the room at Hofstra University where Presidential Debate Number 2 would occur. This was the "town hall" debate, with audience participation!

As usual, you can turn elsewhere on the Atlantic Wire for apt coverage of the debate itself and its aftermath. Here, with the help of a few linguistic experts—Michael Erard, author of the recent  book Babel No More; James W. Pennebaker and Cindy K. Chung, who analyzed the debate on their Wordwatchers blog; Geoffrey Pullum, a visiting professor at Brown University; and semantic analysis provider Expert System, we'll focus on the words and style of our two candidates.

Let's start with pure style. Both men had on dark suits. Obama's suit was darker, slimmer-cut, and maybe a bit shinier. Romney's tie pin was noticeably larger—bigger than last debate's, even? Maybe. Obama's tie was burgundy, Romney's was blue with light diagonal stripes. Both men looked presidential—tall, poised, well-groomed, etc.—in so much as any of us know what that means. Obama's energy level was notably higher than it had been in the first debate: Instead of slouching with his head down, almost looking like he was on the verge of sleep, there were moments that he appeared nearly on the verge of a fight. Romney did, too, with the two guys circling each other at one point that had Twitter predicting a brawl between them; there was loads of passionate finger pointing, too. In terms of posture, Obama tended to sit on his chair leaning at a sharp angle to the left, his arm draped down, which seemed a sort of relaxed but attentive pose (I can't tell if his head is cocked or if his whole body is just in a lean). I noted Romney standing in the fig-leaf position once or twice (denoting a need for self-protection?), but he seemed to note it as well and correct it.

Tone. Romney shifted between what I'll call his "nice guy" tone (that voice for social issues, for instance, or for promising a college kid that he'll give him a job in 2014) and his more matter-fact-voice for talking about jobs, the subject he's clearly most at home with. Obama was matter-of-fact talking about foreign policy and other subjects, even on the attack, but when it came time to talk about women following a question about the gender wage gap, he brought up his grandmother and got more folksy in tone.

Slip-ups and mistakes. Erard noted that Romney said "champening" for " championing." Also, he says, "Romney had more odd one-off moments, both in gestures and language. Obama seemed more consistent." He adds, "Romney was fairly fluent until the Libya exchange, after which he began to stammer." Romney, in fact, appeared visibly flustered after Crowley said that Obama had described the Benghazi attack as "a terror attack" the day after it happened.

Erard continues, "That's one problem with appearing very fluent—when you do encounter difficulties, they stand out. But this came past the halfway point, so I'm not sure what effect the disfluency would have. Whichever person you were supporting, your impressions were already set. They both had moments where they were clearly fighting to recall their talking points—no longer points but whole paragraphs—which ought to be expected, given performance pressures."

Audience participation. What about slip-ups from the audience members (who, in fairness, are not public speakers or politicians)? "I thought the moments where the questioners slipped and bumbled were very charming," Erard says. "One woman called Romney 'President'—or so I heard. Another person couldn't remember all her points." (That was the point in which I heard Obama encouraging her from the background, telling her "you're doing great.")

Aggression. Who started what? "What's interesting is that the first aggression really came from Romney, when he addressed the president directly," says Erard. "I thought the campaigns had an agreement about permissible behavior and they weren't to directly ask questions of the other." Pennebaker and Chung write, however, "Contrary to common wisdom, the rate of anger words was virtually identical to the first debate.  Most pundits claim that this was a more hostile debate but in anger word usage, it wasn’t."

Lady binders and other catchphrases. Romney mentioned the "binders of women" he'd relied on to get some ladies on his cabinet, to the enormous amusement and horror of the Internet. Erard calls this a speech error: "He omitted the possessive on women and a noun like resumes or names." There were no literal women in those binders, we presume. It's interesting that while Romney's intent in mentioning the binders of women and his realization that to hire women you "have to be flexible" (i.e. so they can go home and take care of children) was clearly to bolster his lady-cred, these attempts came off as more revelatory of Romney's ensconced traditional views on gender roles more than anything else. Or, at least, a large portion of people watching took them that way.

A few other notable words and phrases of choice: Romney referring to "Mr. Coal, Mr. Gas"; Obama referencing "Big Bird" and, in his conclusion, the 47 Percent (pulling phrases Romney had used into his court and spinning them in the other direction). Obama also mentioned his status as president and commander in chief: "Here's what I've done since I've been president" is a line with inherent power, no? Meanwhile, Romney returned over and over again to jobs, "small business," and how he can balance a budget, pointing to his work experience as evidence for that.

Pronouns. Erard noted that Romney used I quite a lot. "My sense is that it allowed him more moments where he seemed to be relating directly to questioners ( he could go '') Obama didn't really answer the first couple of questions directly—I thought Romney did a better job of weaving talking points with responses, early on," he adds. (Romney, in his closing remarks, told the audience, "I think you know better," for example.)

Pennebaker and Chung, who gave Romney the "authenticity award" had this to add: "Authenticity reflects markers of self-reflection (I-words), cognitive complexity, and relative low rates of negative emotion.  Compared to the first debate, both Romney and Obama are both becoming more authentic.  However, Romney maintains a small lead (4.6 vs 4.2; compared to the first debate where Romney beat Obama by 4.4 vs 3.5)."

Additionally, semantic tech company Expert System provided linguistic analysis the debates, finding that Obama said we and Romney preferred I and you (see chart above). Obama also said Romney (usually preceded by Governor in a manner some saw as a veiled dig): "The word Romney stands in first place among the most important terms spoken by President Obama, a fact that, along with a slightly greater use of action verbs and the presence of the personal pronoun we (+28% compared to Romney who showed a preference for the first person singular I) seem to indicate a more confident and combative incumbent against the challenger," according to the analysis.

Verbs. From Expert System, "both candidates used the verb be and its various forms most often." Following that, the top five verbs from Obama: say, get, do, make sure, want; Romney: have, get, do, say, want.

Overall takes. I asked Erard, in conclusion, what he thought we could learn from the debates about how we're using language in the U.S. right now. His response: "The status quo is healthy," adding, "It still seems normal to see these events in which norms for interaction can be violated [candidates don't answer the question directed at them] and still be called successful." Pennebaker and Chung point out that "In the second debate, both men answered all the questions more directly" than they did in the first.

Geoffrey Pullum, visiting professor at Brown University, told me, in contrast to what he felt was a depressing VP debate, that this one was great: "highly aggressive on both sides, and real stuff coming out." Linguistically, though, he said, "I am seeing nothing that relates to the language of the two men. Too many people are so confused about language and race that they think they see African-American speech patterns and rhetorical devices when Obama speaks, but I don't think so.  I think I caught one phrase that had just a trace of the cadences of classic African-American speech, but only one, at most." (When President Obama said "gangbangers" when talking about gun control, the Internet reacted strongly.)

He points out that our two candidates are, in some ways, very similar after all: "In general, I was looking at two men speaking standard educated American English, with no significant distinctive features. They should sound alike: they both went to graduate school in Massachusetts, at the very same institution!" Expert System supports this claim, reporting that "A quantitative linguistic analysis shows a greater similarity between the two candidates: Both use more or less the same number of sentences (President Obama with 496 sentences made up of 1,398 prepositions; Governor Romney with 1,406 prepositions spread over 554 sentences), and the same lexical structure in terms of style and word choice (80% of the words used by both candidates are classified as usual or common language)."

Pennebaker and Chung feel that both candidates use language in a way that shows they are psychologically cool or distant and "the debates are simply revealing that they are the same people we have always known," adding "The one difference from Obama is that Romney’s thinking is very male-like."

No matter who you feel won, as Pullum told me, "It was all politics through and through."

Inset photo via AP.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.