A Text Analysis of the Final 2020 Presidential Debate

The Final Presidential Debate: The Moments That Mattered - WSJ

Introduction

This is the second of two posts made on analyzing the presidential debates from a computational, quantitative perspective. If you’d like to start at the beginning, please click here.

It is the final stretch in a trying year on almost every front. Americans feel that this election is more important than any in living memory. With inflection points in postwar history, like the Cold War and possibility of nuclear holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, a gas shortage, Iran Contra, an Aids crisis, terrorism and the World Trade Center attacks on September 11th, Iraq and Afghanistan, a global recession, technological upheaval and growing monopolization, and so on, we are in another such crisis moment where our decisions will readily affect millions.

And with that we have our final debate between candidates, when on October 22nd, Joe Biden and Donald Trump faced off at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, in order to stake their claim for the right to guide us out of the darkest part of a pandemic.

The situation is so perilous that a network had to undergo a technical change in cutting microphones off, in order to prevent a caustic back-and-forth debate like the one that occurred last time.

But thank God they did. This debate, which seemed more focused on issues rather than on ego (though it had some of that), was much easier for me to transfer.

The same methodology follows from before, in order to allow for comparison between the two. I copy-pasted the words of both candidates onto Google Docs, and then ran it through Voyant Tools, a free web-based text analyzer, in order to see major words and talking points.

Again, like before, I want to emphasize that while this is one way to address the debate, it is literally the equivalent of taking words out of context. I would encourage this as only a supplement to the power of reading a person’s words (or seeing it on video) in order to create a more robust account of what each candidate stands for and what they promise to defend.

So with that out of the way, let’s get started.

Trump’s Words

Top 65 words arranged by usage

President Donald Trump spoke a total of 7,384 words with 1,177 unique word forms.

This makes his vocabulary density: 0.159

His average words per sentence: 10.5

Top words included: going (56), it’s (55), people (41), said (38), don’t (34), joe (29), we’re (29), know (28), say (28), years (28), look (27), money (27)

Talking Points: Longest phrases occurring more than once.

Biden’s Words

Top 65 words arranged by usage

Former Vice President Joe Biden spoke a total of 7,347 words with 1,386 unique word forms.

This makes his vocabulary density: 0.189

His average words per sentence: 13.1

Top words included: going (85), we’re (50), people (48), said (42), that’s (34), it’s (33), fact (32), make (31), he’s (30), president (29), don’t (26), sure (26)

Talking Points: Longest phrases occurring more than once.

Analysis

The more actionable word “going” makes up a large proportion of both of the speakers, indicating either an inevitability of their victory over the other candidate, as well as a powerful statement of plans put in place already. The confidence inherent in a word like “going” is a verb both are incentivized to deploy.

Both spoke an incredibly equal amount of words, with Trump only speaking 37 more words compared to Biden. Yet in those words we have differences in style. Once again, Joe spoke longer sentences with a greater vocabulary density.

One of the difficulties in particular with analyzing this debate on computational terms is the fact that both candidates used their opponent’s phrases as a jumping off point. Here in phrases, one can see these dependent clauses as opportunities for rebuffing a point of concern. “We’re learning to live with it,” is a phrase that Joe Biden used against Donald Trump, being one such example from Biden. “Would he close down the oil industry oh” is one such phrase by Donald Trump against Joe Biden to exaggerate Biden’s plan to transition to zero-net emissions by 2050.

Economic Words

One interesting way to explore word usage is to compare emphasis from both speakers based on theme. When speaking about the economy, Donald Trump mentions the word “money” a total of 27 times.

Joe Biden? 15 times.

Joe Biden uses the word “business” as a root word (meaning that businesses would be a count of this word as well), a total of 14 times.

Donald Trump also uses the word 14 times.

Both candidates say the phrase “stock market” twice.

Donald Trump used the word “dollars” 12 times.

Joe Biden? 4 times.

It may be interesting to think about the comparison of liquidity versus structural assets when comparing the two. Both have a desire to restore small businesses back to their fighting weight, a tactic candidates have been arguing for (as well as the power of education) since the dawn of time. But here an interesting disparity arrives when speaking of numbers and money.

Pandemic

The differences in word choice when approaching the pandemic is interesting to note as well.

Here’s Donald Trump on a number of pandemic related key words:

mask (4), virus (0), frontline (0), vaccine (4), covid (1). corona (0), immune (3), mortality (2), dead (2), dying (5), sick (0), spike (8), China (22)

Here’s Joe Biden on a number of pandemic related key words:

mask (3), virus (3), frontline (1), vaccine (1), covid (2). corona (1), immune (0), mortality (0), dead (2), dying (3), sick (1), spike (2), China (26)

It seems both the candidates switch off on pandemic talking points, and in so doing it is important for the reader to check the context, as both candidates use these keywords as points of attack against the other. For example, both candidates use China at the beginning when discussing the pandemic, they discuss China in rebuffing their financial ties to other countries, and lastly the term escalates with climate change and carbon emissions.

Some key takeaways here: Donald Trump is interested in putting the virus behind him and focusing on a vaccine to keep COVID-19 off the table. Joe Biden uses it as a key talking point to criticize the lack of the president’s federal response.

Framing

Let’s follow up on usage of pronouns to see how candidates chose to frame their arguments.

Here are Donald Trump’s pronoun usages:

he (103), he’s (15), him (14), this (46), them (27), they (118), we (109), we’re (29), I (210)

Here are Joe Biden’s pronoun usages:

he (88), he’s (30), him (7), this (60), them (37), they (98), we (96), we’re (50), I (125)

Here we see some disparities. There are some combinatory factors, for example the “he” pronouns, when added up among both candidates, sizes up relatively well.

But the “them” and “they” pronouns, when added up, equal 147 for Trump, 135 for Biden, a slighter disparity.

The “this” pronoun, which would indicate an emphasis on object, issue, or event, rather than a person, has a slight disparity as well, with Trump focused less at (46) than Biden at (60).

Another slight disparity occurs with “we” pronouns, with Trump’s added total to be 138, and Biden’s at 146.

And then there’s the elephant in the room (pun intended). The “I” word.

Looking discretely, one would hardly critique the very minor shifts as they appeared in each category, but when combining them into a framework for understanding perspective and how each candidate addresses the issue and the man across from them, much becomes clear. Donald Trump continues the rhetoric of an individual against an enemy, and focuses much of his pronoun weight on people rather than issues or ideas.

Joe Biden is similar in his disregard for Donald Trump and his administration, but has slightly less emphasis on his own prowess and acumen, and instead focuses more on issues and a group mentality in his agenda.

Both here play to their key strengths. At 77 years old, and showing every minute of it, Joe Biden is less a physical presence and more a symbol for the democratic party. Donald Trump, having laid waste to the presidential election of 2016, is a stand in for a subset of the Republican party, and his charismatic pull using sound bytes and tweets has not lost its luster. While presidents seem to age dramatically in four years, Trump looks remarkably fit. When one votes for Trump, they vote for Trump, but when one votes for Biden, they vote for the party.

If one wanted to, I suspect, one could interpret further these pronoun use words as an attack on their very psychology, but I think that would do little to asses the reasoning behind the words. For this point, I will conclude that both have a vested interest in their pronoun usage, as it helps to illuminate goals by each political party.

Conclusion

With a more sound and cohesive debate under our belts, including a vice-presidential debate as well, we have plenty to go off of. I have already voted, and in that space I was able to see American citizens inordinately happy and caring. Was it because we had hardly seen other people in this kind of space? Was it because we knew it was a polarizing political climate and we were trying to compensate?

Or maybe it was simply a reminder of the good nature and humor of the American people?

I have every confidence in our fellow citizen. And I hope that, with an analysis like this, it helps to uncover an unseen aspect of language and its uses in public discourse.

Thank you for your time and dedication to your vote. Good luck and God speed.

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