02 October 2008

Sarah Palin vs. Joe Biden vs. Glen Ifill

I'm afraid that part 3 of the Democratic Party vs. Republican Party vs. Green Party vs. Libertarian Party vs. Constitution Party series of posts will have to wait till tomorrow. Tonight I watched the vice presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis and of course I want to present you with my word analysis again (see previous posts on the first presidential debate and the convention speeches). I found the transcript and separated out the words spoken by Palin, Biden and moderator Ifill. Let's start with the bubble graph in which I summarize how many words, sentences and characters (excl. spaces) each speaker used:

Ifill didn't use a lot of words which makes sense as she was the moderator. However, her words were notably longer even though she spoke in short sentences. This seems a bit odd at first. The explanation lies in her word choice as moderator: her most common words were "governor" and "senator" (as we'll see below). Palin and Biden were very similar in style though Palin did use longer sentences. I'm not sure what that could mean.

Next, using Wordle, I again made a "word cloud" of each of the debate contributions.

Sarah Palin

Joe Biden

Glen Ifill

Peculiarly, Palin's most common word was "also." My impression was that at times she sort of went on and on, just listing talking points, which then maybe were loosely connected by the word "also"... Then came "going," maybe due to her more colloquial style? Also frequent was "John" or "McCain," in other words she was praising and invoking him a lot. Biden's most common word was "John" followed by "McCain," highlighting his not addressing Palin as much as McCain as well as his familiarity with his fellow senator. Then came "going." Maybe he was more colloquial in his style than I realized? Or maybe in both cases they were talking about their team's plans and therefore looking at the near future? Biden also used "Barack" and "Obama" many times, it seems to me when he was stressing their team effort. Finally, Ifill's most common word was "governor" (sometimes abbreviated as "gov." in the transcript: this should be added to the full term's number actually). She did use it more than "senator" or "sen." (no. 2), maybe pointing at the fact that she was addressing Palin more than Biden?

Update 11-4-08: For Palin's use of "also," see the post on the Language Log blog. For the transcript I used, see CNN. "Maverick" really only appears 15 times in it: 9 times for Biden and 6 times for Palin—hard to believe, isn't it?

Update 10-5-08: As I explain in this new post, Wordle has a lot more settings than I was aware of. Here are the improved, "corrected" word clouds.

Sarah Palin (improved)

Joe Biden (improved)

Glen Ifill (improved)


  1. Interesting analysis. I do believe one can gain insight to a person's thought process by this type of analysis. (Salon.com had an essay about trying to diagram the sentences of Palin's answers in the Couric interview. Also interesting.)

    It looks like the word clouds are incomplete, at least on my screen. Surely Sen. Biden used the word "class" as often as "middle", but that does not show up here.

  2. Mr Francis Deblauwe :

    I noted that Governor Palin in the Debate with Biden used the word "hate" many times, as in "the nations that hate us", or "those that hate us", also sentences "those that want to destroy us".

    "Hate" and "Destroy" are very common in Palinguage.

    She refers to much to haters outside the USA and very little to friends and allies that love the USA and want to help U.S. Policies to succeed.

    Vicente Duque from


  3. Another missing word: I noticed that maverick showed up on Biden's graph, but I couldn't find it on Palin's. It was one of her most common filler words. Where is it here?


  4. Very interesting. I noticed the word Also is the most used word by Palin. I noticed long ago I got sick of hearing her say that because that was right at the time she starts to babble.

  5. Karen: I noticed that too, I couldn't even find the word "maverick" in Palin's word cloud. So I went back to the transcript plus split-out versions and double-checked: Biden's transcript has it 9 times, Palin only 6 and in the complete transcript it appears 15 times—the numbers are OK. I could've sworn she used it a lot more though. Maybe the CNN transcript I used is incorrect? I'll look into it.

  6. m913: Biden used "class" 12 times, "middle" 13 times; "middle" is located at the top left of "John"

  7. Very good observations yours, should be difficult to identify in all it is saying the words that are repeated each.