In presidential campaigns, words matter. With Barack Obama belittled as an empty-suit orator and John McCain stifled by rhetorical blunders, the influence of language has already been felt. But words also offer hints as to what issues the candidate prioritize, how they've evolved, the messages they deliver, and topics they avoid.
Since 2004, Obama has delivered 150 speeches with a grand total of 382,132 words, according to those listed on his Senate and campaign website. He is more loquacious than his opponent, McCain who has delivered 127 speeches encompassing 254,342 words.
As documented by the website Speech Wars, what the two candidates are talking about can be telling. Take, for example, the willingness to discuss the current administration. Obama, in his speeches, has uttered George W. Bush's name 209 times compared to 51 for McCain. Taken as percentages, the presumptive Democratic nominee is 2.73 times more likely to remind listeners of the president than his Republican counterpart. But the tendency to evoke Bush is a relatively new phenomenon. As Speech Wars charts, Obama's mentioning of the President has increased drastically since he started running for the White House, topping off in a June 9, 2008 speech in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The disparity is even greater when it comes to Dick Cheney. Obama has mentioned him 18 times compared to McCain's three -- though, to be fair, the Illinois Democrat often jokes about the discovery that he and the vice president are distantly separated cousins.
It's hardly surprising that an opposition party leader feels compelled to keep bringing up the incumbent and tremendously unpopular president. But the utterances do get at a larger point: Obama has done an effective job positioning himself as the political outsider. The Senator is 2.52 times more likely to utter the word Washington (mostly in the "we need to change" context) in his speeches than McCain, having done so 495 times to the Arizona Republican's 125. Obama has also used the word "change" 610 times to McCain's 237, although, notably, McCain is 1.31 times more likely to use "reform" in a speech.
As for policy, word choice can demonstrate where the candidates see U.S. priorities or the most room for political gain. For instance, both Obama and McCain have discussed "Iraq" more than 500 times (Obama's 555 to McCain's 505 -- making Obama 1.37 times more likely to name the country). And both have referenced Iraq with some regularity since 2005, suggesting that both candidates feel comfortable on the issue.
The same dynamics actually hold true for Afghanistan, which Obama has uttered 110 times in speeches to McCain's 91. But on Pakistan, the presumptive Democratic nominee has been much more focused than his Republican opponent, saying that country's name 47 times to McCain's nine.
Both candidates, it should be noted, rarely mention Osama bin Laden. Obama has referenced the al-Qaeda leader only 14 times and McCain just seven.
On the domestic front, the word energy provides another illustrative insight into the state of the general election. McCain has used the word 237 times in speeches dating back to 2004. But the preponderance of those came in the last few months. Obama, too, has focused in on the issue more recently, but a look at the mentions over time reveal that he has been far more consistent in addressing the issue. Overall he has uttered the word energy 406 times.
Ben Reis, who runs Speech Wars, acknowledged that his site was not a precise scientific enterprise. The criteria for a speech, he wrote, was anything from 2004 onwards that was posted under the "speeches" area on the candidate's Senate or presidential website.
"Press releases and press conferences are included if they are listed under the "speeches" area in the four websites above," he wrote.
Moreover there was a gap in McCain's speeches from the end of 2007 and slightly into 2008 due to poor website upkeep. But Reis "looked online for transcripts of McCain's speeches to fill in some of this gap."
So, while there are certainly some remarks that could have been missed, the scope of the data is enough to provide insight into what words the candidates believe matter.
How to vote
Vote-by-mail ballot request deadline: Varies by state
For the Nov 3 election: States are making it easier for citizens to vote absentee by mail this year due to the coronavirus. Each state has its own rules for mail-in absentee voting. Visit your state election office website to find out if you can vote by mail.Get more information
In-person early voting dates: Varies by state
Sometimes circumstances make it hard or impossible for you to vote on Election Day. But your state may let you vote during a designated early voting period. You don't need an excuse to vote early. Visit your state election office website to find out whether they offer early voting.My Election Office
General Election: Nov 3, 2020
Polling hours on Election Day: Varies by state/localityMy Polling Place