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Republican and Democrat

Learning from the debate transcripts of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama

On September 26, 1960, over 60 million viewers tuned in to watch John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon take the stage for the first televised debate ever between the presidential nominees of the two major US political parties. The contrast the audience perceived that evening between a sickly and tired Nixon and a rested and confident Kennedy is now regarded as the major turning point of that campaign. That first debate not only changed the 1960 election, but also marked the dawn of a new age in presidential politics, dominated by the medium of television.

Arguably, the 2012 presidential debates have ushered in another new era, with social media challenging television as a key influence on the campaign. In this year’s presidential debates between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, immediate reaction on Twitter and Facebook has shaped perceptions of the candidates’ performance in real time, as viewers share their opinions on their “second screens” (tablets, smartphones, and laptops) while viewing. The second debate, in the so-called town hall format with ordinary voters asking questions, has been called the third-largest social media event ever.

One impact of this social media-driven discussion is that one or two words and phrases in each debate, seized upon by viewers, have garnered an outsized share of attention, engendering flurries of new content like dedicated Twitter accounts and hashtags, Facebook pages, and Tumblrs: Big Bird, binders full of women, horses and bayonets. However, most of the words spoken by the candidates were more pedestrian ones, such as jobs, government, and tax. The most common words used by both candidates were pronouns, but whereas Romney used you most often, Obama favored we (perhaps not surprising given that his first campaign’s slogan was “Yes we can”).

The word clouds below each show the words most often used by one candidate over the course of the three debates, with the size of each word increasing based on how frequently it appeared in the transcripts. Can you tell which one represents Barack Obama and which one Mitt Romney? Close watchers of the debates may notice some of the candidates’ verbal tics making an appearance.

Candidate I

Candidate II

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