Wanna Win in November? Copy Your Opponent

I don't know about you but I have no intention of watching the debate tonight (I have my son's Open House at school so I have a ready-made excuse, if anyone asks).

But I've just had enough of all the hatred and spewing of vitriol and I can't wait for it all to be over.

Now a new study is saying that a linguistics trick could boost poll numbers.

A study of U.S. presidential debates between 1976 and 2012 found that matching certain aspects of an opponent's language can lead to a bump in the polls, according to newswise.com.

"Linguistic style matching," says a University of Michigan professor who led the study, has nothing to do with tone, cadence or the number of times one candidate interrupts the other. Nor is it about content—the nouns and regular verbs that make up "what" a speaker says.

It's much more subtle. Linguistic-style-matching zeroes in on so-called function words that reflect how a speaker is making a point. It refers to conjunctions like "also," "but" and "unless;" quantifiers like "all," "remaining" and "somewhat;" and other supporting parts of speech.

Guess it leaves out all the four-letter and nasty slang words for women's body parts.

"These function words are inherently social, and they require social knowledge to understand and use," adds study author Daniel Romero, an assistant professor in the U-M School of Information, as well as in computer science and engineering. "We think that matching an opponent's linguistic style shows greater perspective- taking and also makes one's argument's easier to understand for third-party viewers."

 The eight style markers they evaluated in the study amount to 444 words: quantifiers, conjunctions, adverbs, auxiliary verbs, prepositions, articles, personal pronouns and impersonal pronouns. Examples include "about," "especially," "perhaps," "must," "might," "these" and "our." Each candidate in each debate was given a score for how closely they matched their opponent's linguistic style according to these parameters, when their opponent had been the first to speak.

Then the team examined Gallup polls and meshed the data. They found that linguistic-style-matchers gained a median of one point. And those that didn't match lost a median of one percentage point in the polls.

"We already knew a lot about how linguistic-matching can affect a relationship between two people. It can lead to better outcomes for negotiators, for example. In this case, we were interested in something different," Romero says. "And that's when a third person is watching the exchange and judging who is doing a better job. We didn't know a lot about that before."

The outcome didn't surprise Romero.

"We think linguistic-style-matching is linked to processing fluency and if that's the case, it helps the third person have an easier time understanding the candidate's response," he explains.

No candidate over the years stood out as being a supreme style-matcher. Some did well in particular debates, only to get low marks in others against the same opponent. And poll data didn't always correlate with election outcomes.

For example, Gerald Ford received a positive linguistic-style-matching score of .02 in the '76 election's first debate. His poll numbers spiked 6.5 percentage points. In contrast, Carter's linguistic matching score was -.53. He was not adept in that case at mirroring how Ford made his points. Carter's poll numbers dropped by 2 points. But it was Carter who prevailed in November.

In contrast, the first debate of 2000 turns out to have predicted the White House inhabitant. George W. Bush matched Al Gore well, for a score of 1.43. He rose two percentage points in the polls. Gore, on the other hand, got a negative matching score of -0.41. He fell in the polls by three points.


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