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Speeches dip below 6th-grade level, study says

Debra Erdley
| Thursday, March 17, 2016, 11:05 p.m.

They've been coached by consultants and schooled by speech writers. Now, the 2016 presidential contenders are getting a new evaluation: the readability test.

There were no failing grades, but none earning high school honors English, either, in an analysis by Carnegie Mellon University researchers of speeches given during the presidential campaign.

The researchers found five candidates aspiring to the highest office in the nation typically serve up campaign speeches using vocabulary and grammar at a junior-high level.

Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton, all lawyers, consistently gave campaign speeches in that range. Billionaire businessman and GOP frontrunner Donald Trump's grammar and vocabulary occasionally slipped just below a sixth-grade level, the analysis showed.

At the other end of the scale, the scientists found speeches by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the eldest of the five candidates in the study, used 10th-grade-level grammar and vocabulary.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, until recently considered the darkest of dark horse candidates, wasn't included in the study by Maxine Eskenazi, a professor in CMU's Language Technologies Institute, and graduate student Elliot Schumacher.

They built a database of campaign speech transcripts from the five candidates and put them through a program called REAP that determines the reading level of documents and ranks them from grade 1 to 12.

Schumacher and Eskenazi took their cue from social media, where they saw a growing number of critics analyzing candidates' speeches.

“So much has been out on social media,” Eskenazi said. “People are doing analysis different ways. We have proven technology that has been used over a decade. The analysis needed to be done. This is a year when people are interested in what is being said in politics, and we figured our algorithms would work for that.”

The researchers ranked how often candidates deviated from the text in stump speeches they repeated many times before different audiences.

Clinton, who honed her diplomatic skills as secretary of State, and Trump, who boasts of his skills as a negotiator, often made adjustments in their speeches as they went from one group to the next. Cruz, on the other hand, rarely deviated from his standard text.

“It was interesting to find out who is changing their language the most,” Eskenazi said.

“To us, that means they were working to tailor their language to the audience,” Schumacher said.

Jerry Shuster, a University of Pittsburgh professor who teaches presidential rhetoric, wasn't surprised by the findings.

“They (Clinton and Trump) are the ones who are obviously in the lead. They aren't stock speakers. They use the stump speech written by whomever as a kind of map,” Shuster said.

“And Trump has the uncanny ability to make some adjustments based on interjection of news comments or comments made by personalities or other candidates while he's giving his basic stump policies,” he said. “He can throw in interjections about what he likes or dislikes about Ted Cruz or Hillary and not deviate from the content at all. Not everyone can do that. Kasich couldn't do it, and Ted Cruz isn't good at it either.”

Although each candidate's personal style slips through in the speeches, Kirt H. Wilson, a Penn State professor who teaches political communications, cautioned that consultants influence candidates.

“Political consultants often coach their candidate to either smarten up or bring down the intellectual content of their speeches,” Wilson said.

Wilson said hewing toward ever simpler syntax — a trend the CMU researchers found in the candidates' speeches as campaigns progressed — may reflect the influence of instantaneous communications technology and the cyclical nature of American politics, which demands simple answers when times are tough.

“Our political culture today doesn't make much room for a complex or sophisticated expression of what our problems are and what our solutions might be. There's not much room in public spaces for that,” he said.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer.She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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