A Text Analysis of the First 2020 Presidential Debate

Analysis: Hits and misses from the first presidential debate - CNNPolitics

I did not watch the debate.

Instead I have been reading through it this morning. I refused to watch for a position I have stated in the past.

The United States has had a rather large problem with conflating charisma as good leadership. From radio, to television, to the internet, and now to tweets, the president has become a position that feels less about issues and more about image and presentation.

By resorting to reading and text, I’d like to skip over these short-circuits in our thinking.

For a while this year, I was skeptical about the concept of debates. I felt that debates did not really express what the job of president entails. But after some self-criticism, I realized that I was incorrect. Here is the candidate to vote for, and there is no longer any question of veracity or of fake news. It’s all here, as ugly or refined as you’d like to call it, and to some extent you get to see just how raw or slick the candidates are.

Is there a chance to learn about the issues at a debate? Less so than in writing a book, say, or having a platform on a website. What you get in a debate instead is the edge cases of decorum and reaction to another’s viewpoints.

But the combination of debates and sticking to text gives the reader plenty of opportunities to analyze the dialogue with the right tools.

For today, I will be using a simple one. Voyant Tools allows a basic presentation of high-frequency words and phrases, and does some background work on lengths of sentences and the vocabulary density.

I copy-pasted the transcripts of the event into two separate files, with Donald Trump’s dialog in one, and Joe Biden’s dialog in another. Using Voyant Tools, I was able to analyze purely their speech, without interruption (unlike the actual debate).

So let’s get started:

Joe Biden’s Words

A Word Cloud of Joe Biden’s most-used content words

Joe Biden spoke:

6,557 words

1,215 unique word forms.

Making his vocabulary density = 0.185

His average words per sentence was 11.5

His most used words were: people (74), going (60), fact (38), it’s (37), he’s (35).

His most common phrases were: “and by the way” (8), “and we” (5), “his own” (5), “in terms of” (5), “in your” (5)

Donald Trump’s Words

A Word Cloud of Donald Trump’s most-used content words

Donald Trump spoke:

7,144 words

1,139 unique word forms

Making his vocabulary density = 0.159

His average words per sentence was 10.1

His most used words were: people (67), it’s (51), don’t (43), going (41), want (40)

His most common phrases were: “and by the way” (6), “excuse me” (6), “oh really” (6), “a lot of people” (5), “after the election” (5)

Further Analysis

I find it fascinating that both candidates used “and by the way” as a top phrase.

Donald Trump’s most used words seem to indicate more action words and denial, while Joe Biden’s most used terms indicate rebuttals to the incumbent based on evidence and data.

While Donald Trump had shorter sentences on average, he talked more. Part of the frustration of the copy-pasting was the short sound bytes the transcript provided, which leads me to conclude that the debate itself was very disjointed, cacophonous, and messy.

An interesting look may have to do with specific talking points. To test this, I counted the amount of phrases that had more than one instance in the transcript and happened to be six words or more.

Joe Biden had 18 phrases with six or more words.

Donald Trump? 29 phrases with six or more words.

In fact, these phrases and their use of more than once are so fascinating I’m going to paste them here for your perusal.

Joe Biden’s Large Phrase List

Donald Trump’s Large Phrase List

Of course, plenty can be said (and has already been said) about the content of the debate, which is of far greater importance. But here I hope I have provided something useful to audiences about what a debate looks like when analyzed using computerized text analysis like Voyant Tools.

Some of the basic takeaways could start by analyzing Donald Trump’s television success by his reliance on short and repeated phrases that are easy for voters to ally themselves with for defining their moods.

Still further analysis could be from a certain perspective on presidential outlook. One example could be the use of “us versus them” as a basic tenet to prove a point. Looking at the use of the word “they” as well as words including “they” (like “they’re”), we find that Joe Biden uses the term 61 times.

Donald Trump uses “they” words 134 times. Over twice as much.

Given the relative similarity in amount of words, it’s startling that an acting president would be so willing to name adversaries in groups rather than going after particulars.

Conversely, the charge for Joe Biden has always been to attack the man, Trump, rather than the party.

In the use of the word “he,” Donald Trump used the term 107 times.

Joe Biden uses the word “he” 215 times.

Another interesting takeaway from the debate is the reversal of intention. Where typically the incumbent president sticks to the issues and does not anger, berate, or attack the candidate of the opposite party, that did not happen here.

Let’s hope that with the follow up debates, more time will be spent on investigating the issues, rather than each other, though I doubt anything substantial will come out of them.

Even with my above declarations about the importance of debates, I’m hard pressed to imagine why anyone would have wanted to subject themselves to this food fight for over an hour. Just skimming the transcript for this exercise left me feeling disappointed on both sides. Many of the jibes were unnecessary, and much of our desperation to hear robust attention given to very dire problems in our nation were orphaned.

In any case, here it is in print.

2 thoughts on “A Text Analysis of the First 2020 Presidential Debate

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