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Speeches offer clues to presidential success
In politics, words are everything — and more.
Lucian “Luke” Gideon Conway III, an assistant professor of psychology at UM, analyzes and codes political speech to detect patterns and determine whether simple or complex rhetoric is more effective.
He’s also interested in defining what personality traits correspond with political speeches, such as cooperation and affiliation with various groups.
His findings have been featured in mainstream media outlets such as The Washington Post and the British Broadcasting Corp., as well as in academic publications such as the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
He’s become so accustomed to coding language that his work seeps into his daily life.
“I code my mother’s e-mails for complexity,” the 37-year-old Conway says with a laugh as he explains his research in his cluttered office.
He and other coders in the UM lab use an “integrative complexity” construct to rank written or spoken statements on a scale of one to seven, as well as two other constructs of their own design to measure the component parts.
Conway says they measure how simply or complexly people think about a particular issue. It could be a straightforward: “Broccoli is terrible — I hate it.” Or, it could be something that combines several thoughts and how they are interrelated: “Broccoli has a terrible texture and a nice flavor; but really, it’s the way the flavor and texture combine in the palate that make the unique broccoli experience.”
His recent work has homed in on State of the Union addresses of the past 40 presidents, starting with our nation’s first president and concluding in 2004.
Typically, this annual speech gives a president a chance to offer a comprehensive, detailed platform that lays out his vision and sets his agenda for the year. All the major networks carry the speech in its entirety — a departure from most regular presidential coverage that is more sporadic and bounces from topic to topic.
Conway found an intriguing pattern in the State of the Union speeches he analyzed for “integrative complexity” in a paper published in the journal Political Psychology. And the pattern held true over generations, regardless of whether the researchers were analyzing George Washington or George W. Bush.
Conway’s research with co-author Felix Thoemmes, a graduate student at Arizona State University, revealed that the speeches displayed higher levels of complexity in a president’s first three State of the Union addresses. But the complexity of speech plummeted during the fourth year as the president prepared his next run for office.
Why? It may be that presidents simplify their messages to win elections. At the beginning of their terms in office, they increase the complexity of their speeches as they sketch out the costs, dissenting points of view and any possible consequences of their policies. When their terms are up, they offer simple solutions as they begin their re-election campaigns.
For example, Bill Clinton’s rallying cry, “It’s the economy, stupid,” helped drum up support prior to his successful 1992 campaign against George H.W. Bush.
Conway says another possible reason for the simpler message in the fourth year is cognitive fatigue.
“Presidents may literally wear down from the constant focus on them and work matters,” he says.
Indeed, it is possible that successful presidents are those who avoid this fatigue longer. For example, Conway’s research revealed that presidents who successfully won re-election for a second term were “really good at maintaining complexity for a longer period of time and, quite possibly, were more successful at their jobs as a result. Maybe the reason they got re-elected was because the populace recognized they did a better job.”
But incumbent presidents who were not re-elected showed a drop in complexity that occurred very soon in their presidency, suggesting they “simply ran out of intellectual steam too early,” Conway says.
But Conway doesn’t want people to assume that complexity always is good and simplicity always is bad. Actually, a lot of research indicates that complexity often is really bad. English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, for example, was complex in dealing with Hitler (bad), and the compromise of 1850 was driven by complex people from the North willing to compromise on slavery (bad).
“It was simple, straightforward people who stopped the Holocaust, like Churchill, and slavery, like the Northern Abolitionists,” Conway says.
One potential criticism levied at this work is that it could be the State of the Union speeches are not a good gauge of presidential thought, especially given the increased role of speechwriters since Calvin Coolidge created the first speech-writing staff in 1925. But Conway says he doesn’t put too much credence in this line of thinking because presidents are so deeply involved in their State of the Union speeches.
A Louisiana native who was raised in Texas, Conway received a bachelor’s degree in 1994 from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He earned a master’s and doctorate in social psychology from the University of British Columbia in 1998 and 2001, respectively.
Conway now is trying to answer the question of why there is a drop in the complexity of presidents’ speeches during their fourth year in office. More precisely, he wants to know why presidents with more simple views in their fourth State of the Union addresses are more likely to be re-elected.
To find possible answers, Conway is analyzing the 2004 Democratic presidential primary debates. His preliminary findings suggest that presidential candidates who gave complex arguments were less popular in public opinion polls than were those candidates who gave simpler explanations.
“We are investigating this because maybe simple rhetoric is more effective in elections,” Conway says.
In Conway’s initial analysis of 11 Democratic primary debates, he discovered the winners had a significant drop in the complexity of their arguments during the course of the debates.
“John Kerry and John Edwards started with high complexity and then dropped, while the losers had flat lines,” Conway says.
His ongoing research also is looking at the 2008 presidential election.
Campaign rhetoric and debate between Barack Obama and John McCain was parsed into about 60 to 70 paragraphs and roughly split between domestic and foreign issues. For each paragraph, any identifiers were removed and the paragraph was scored for integrative complexity. These paragraphs then were given to college participants, who were asked various questions about how the paragraph would affect their vote.
“What we found is complexity worked better for McCain and simplicity worked better for Obama, and this was particularly true for foreign-policy issues,” Conway says. “We speculate there is a compensatory action. There was a perception of McCain as a bit of a simple-minded hawk, so his complex rhetoric may have compensated for the stereotype.”
So, given Conway’s research, is complex or simple speech more effective?
“There are about 60 ways to answer that question,” Conway says. “Interestingly, there is a slight correlation between complexity in rhetoric and historians’ ratings of presidential greatness. Yet, in some ways, it’s clear that in some specific campaign contexts simplicity can be very effective nonetheless.”
— By Pamela J. Podger
UM’s Lucian Gideon