Presidential Debate Analysis

Whenever I watch a televised debate, I always wonder what percentage of the speaker’s message is actually thinking on the feet and how much is canned material. With the advent of available transcripts, these sorts of questions can be addressed with various computational methods.

A simple way to identify repeated statements is to count the number of times a particular noun phrase is metioned. Noun phrases act as both a proxy to the subject matter of a given piece of text, but also the way in which things are worded.

For this simple experiment, we’ll need four tools:

The results are quite interesting. Looking only at noun phrases of at least 2 words occuring at least twice for a given speaker, we arrive at some spectacular catch phrases. For Bush my favorite is “hard work,” which he said repeatedly. Apparently Bush thinks that the world is a difficult place to be. For Kerry, a salient phrase was “war as a last resort.”

The top 25 phrases for Bush and Kerry follow. The number following each phrase is a rank described by the length of the phrase and the number of times it appeared.

There are so many other types of analysis that could be run on these data. If you find anything interesting, please let me know. Also, the Debate Spotter allows for any query, so post any interesting phrases that you find.

Update: I have also analyzed the Vice Presidential and the Second Presidential debates.


free iraq (14),
hard work (13),
wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time (13),
wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place (12),
north korea (10),
kim jong il (10),
my opponent (9),
american people (8),
same intelligence (8),
prime minister allawi (8),
best way (7),
free afghanistan (7),
world a more peaceful place (7),
mixed messages (7),
iraqi citizens (6),
al qaida (6),
weapons of mass destruction (6),
dynamics on the ground (6),
breach on the agreement (6),
end of this year (6),
grave threat (6),
matter of fact (5),
cannot lead (5),
grand diversion (5),
wrong signals (5)


saddam hussein (14),
north korea (14),
nuclear weapons (10),
weapons of mass destruction (9),
osama bin (9),
united nations (9),
war as a last resort (9),
american people (8),
90 percent of the casualties (7),
nuclear proliferation (7),
remedies of the united nations (7),
90 percent of the costs (7),
united states of america (7),
homeland security (7),
mountains of tora bora (6),
10 active duty divisions (6),
different set of convictions (6),
four years (6),
president bush (6),
president of south korea (6),
strong alliances (6),
two years (5),
secretary of state (5),
tax cut (5),
bilateral talks (5)

80 thoughts on “Presidential Debate Analysis

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  2. “A simple way to identify repeated statements is to count the number of times a particular noun phrase is metioned.”

    Just a note that you mispelled “metioned” … it should be “mentioned” . Thought I would point this out.

  3. looks like one thing that the automatic thing didn’t catch was phrases that were plural versus singular. it already counted a decent score for kerry’s use of “90 percent of the casualties”, but the score could have been quite higher if it had caught “90 percent of the casualties and 90 percent of the cost(s)”. there are two phrases with that. and still another in which the words “in Iraq” are interposed.

    it seems the computational method could perhaps take this type of thing into account for slightly longer phrases to really highlight those items that a debate participant is trying to emphasize.

  4. Nice work, even with all the caveats.

    I’m attempting to apply predicate calculus to the intersection of political speak with related fact. My goal is to drive a truth table that can devolve into a simple measure – perhaps a percentage – giving the overall truth value of a given statement, position paper or speech.

    My first thought was to use an autoconstructing database (e.g., askSam) to create entries, but that seems a bit clunky. An algorithmic approach would be much better, since ideally it could be run in real-time.

    Any thoughts?

  5. Why will president Bush all of a sudden accept flue shots made in Canada? In the last debate he argued that drugs from Canada (made in the USA)were unsafe for Americans. Has he suddenly discovered that Canada is a pretty safe neighbor?

  6. I’m in Dubai, UAE. I have special interest in working with texts.
    Could you tutor me on this subject. I need to learn how to do the analysis of texts and what tools to use.

  7. With the greatest respect, I can think of after absorbing the data was the good old (pre-divorce) Czechoslovak saying:

    He who thinks by the inch and talks by the yard deserves to be kicked by the foot.

  8. I really hate the fact that both canidates say the same thing over and over. I was going towards Kerry but all he’s focused on is Iraq. The main thing. Bush spent 42% of his time on vacation during the 6 months that he was in office before 9/11. Was he ready? No way. They are both idiots. But Kerry might be able to save the economy.

  9. Everyone should vote for john kerry he makes so much more sense then bush. Bush just blabs away about anything that comes to mind. he has the IQ of a rock

  10. People should get a little more educated about voting, instead going out there and just do it they need to know the real issues and I think that people who is lazy and likes free stuff should vote for Kerry, because that’s all he is about.

  11. hi.
    Do you have any programs or ideas that you might want to try out with music? I’ve allways wanted to mix the two.
    / Sebastian, Sweden.

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