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The Sources and Limits of Obama’s Rhetorical Power

- April 17, 2008


Well, okay, this paper, which Christian Grose (an assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt) and Jason Husser (a Vanderbilt graduate student) presented a couple of weeks ago at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, really isn’t about Barack Obama at all, but it does provide helpful context for understanding Obama’s electoral appeal.

Gross and Husser use some off-the-shelf measures of the content and style of text passages to score campaign speeches by the major-party presidential candidates, 1976-2004. (Included among these indicators were the oft-employed Flesch score of the grade level in school for which a given passage was pitched and several content scores calculated by Roderick Hart’s “Diction” program. )

The two major results:

* We find that more sophisticated campaign speech by a candidate results in a higher likelihood that a citizen will vote for that candidate, though this effect of linguistic sophistication is conditioned by voter cognition. The most highly educated voters are most likely to use the non-policy dimension of complex rhetoric in casting their vote.

* We also find that candidates who present themselves using language that draws on themes of commonality, activity, and realism are more likely to win a citizen’s vote in the election.

I don’t necessarily buy Grose and Husser’s argument that the first result flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that more educated voters are more likely to vote “rationally.” Nor does their second result fit Obama perfectly: Although the themes of commonality and activity are Obamanian (“Yes we can!”), many question the realism of Obama’s vision.

That said, Grose and Husser’s analysis does help us understand the upper- and upper-middle class configuration of Obama’s support coalition, as well as the electoral appeal of his inclusivist, activist rhetoric. Of course, “rhetorically disadvantaged” candidates, for whom George W. Bush is the obvious poster boy of recent years, can still prevail if the issues in the campaign align favorably for them, but this study helps clarify how, and how much, rhetoric matters.

For a copy of this paper, click HERE.