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Comparing Presidential Candidates' Language To Books In 'The New York Times'


Who would get through better to American voters in a debate like the one that Republican candidates are having tonight, Huckleberry Finn or Beowulf? Not even close? Well, I raise the question because of a feature in today's New York Times data-driven blog "The Upshot." They analyzed the speaking styles of the candidates of both parties in the debate so far. How complex, how positive or negative is the language of each candidate? If each one were a book, what book would it be? Where do we find English that's used the way that candidate uses it? Well, Times graphics editor Josh Katz made a chart illustrating all this and he joins us now. Explain what you've done here.

JOSH KATZ: Yeah, so we took the transcripts from the presidential debates so far this year and we analyzed the candidates' speech patterns. On one axis, we put how complex their speech was. And on another axis, we put how positive versus how negative the words that they used were.

SIEGEL: OK, let's talk about some of the Republicans who are debating tonight. And people who tune in can decide if your analysis holds up after what they've heard. Here is a clip from the CNN debate last month of Texas Senator Ted Cruz.


TED CRUZ: No president of the United States, republican or democrat, has the authority to give away our sovereignty. And so if there's anyone up here who would be bound by this catastrophic deal with Iran, they're giving up the core responsibility of commander-in-chief. And as president, I would never do that.

SIEGEL: Ted Cruz scores, you'd say, as the most complex speaker of all the candidates running.

KATZ: That's correct. And, I mean, you can hear it right there in that clip, you know, authority, sovereignty, catastrophic. Those are big, multi-syllable words, and he packs them all into one big, long sentence.

SIEGEL: And when you looked for some work of literature that might use the language the way Senator Cruz does, you land on?

KATZ: "Beowulf."

SIEGEL: "Beowulf." Then let's turn to somebody else who is way at the opposite level of the scale from complex, the most simple speaker who needs no introduction. This is from the first Republican debate on FOX News.


DONALD TRUMP: We have a president who doesn't have a clue. I would say he's incompetent but I don't want to do that because that's not nice.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Donald Trump is of all the people running in both parties you find speaks the simplest English.

KATZ: That's right. And again, you can hear it right in that clip. It's these very short, punchy sentences with small words, it's straight to the point, it's direct.

SIEGEL: Reminiscent to your analysts of...

KATZ: "The Adventures Of Huck Finn" or "Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales."

SIEGEL: Ben Carson, let's listen to him from the FOX News debate again.


BEN CARSON: America became a great nation early on not because it was flooded with politicians, but because it was flooded with people who understood the value of personal responsibility, hard work, creativity, innovation, and that's what will get us on the right track now as well.

SIEGEL: How does he score?

KATZ: So he ends up right in the middle between Trump on the one end and Cruz on another.

SIEGEL: He's the "Goldilocks" speaker...

KATZ: Yes, yeah exactly.

SIEGEL: ...In this study. And how is this that Ted Cruz, the most complex of all the speakers you found, is the only Republican who is more complex than the three Democrats whom you analyzed. That's Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders.

KATZ: That's a great question. There's research that suggests that Republicans are more drawn to cognitively simple statements, whereas Democrats are more drawn to complex statements. As you said, Ted Cruz is a notable exception. One theory that I've heard is that apparently once you go to law school, you speak like a lawyer for the rest of your life. And as a Harvard Law grad, Ted Cruz speaks like a Harvard Law grad.

SIEGEL: How would "The Upshot" fair in this algorithm? Would you come out more complicated than Ted Cruz?

KATZ: We were going to put it on the chart, but it was too complicated. So it landed off the chart, so we couldn't put it in.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

KATZ: I spoke to one too many professors, and those quotes just put me right off the edge.

SIEGEL: Well, Josh Katz, thanks a lot for talking with us.

KATZ: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Josh Katz is a graphics editor for the New York Times. He worked on "The Upshot's" analysis of the speech of the presidential candidates. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.